Per Hüttner shares an interview and his essay “Never Forget Temporality”

The Inclusion is very pleased to publish an interview with Per Hüttner conducted via email on Friday, 4 January, 2013:

The Inclusion:  From the beginning, your practice has been characterised by a web of continual collaborations with a most diverse array of people (artists, educators, curators, but also physicians, architects and so on). Your collaborations have also been highly variegated with respect to their sites of activity – extending, as they have, from São Paolo to Shanghai. Can you try to explain what collaboration means for you? In particular, what are the edges/limits of a practice that can be called collaborative? 

Per Hüttner: In 1992, I published “Begrepp – en Samling”  (“Concepts – a Collection”) together with biochemist Elias Arnér. In his text about Nobel Laureates in the sciences, Professor Rolf Luft writes that there are two kinds of artists. There are those who try to perfect the field in which they are working. And, there are others who try to expand it and find new ways to further their practice. To prove his point he included two paintings from the Renaissance: one icon-like and two-dimensional; the other, one of the first attempts at using single-point perspective. The stance is, of course,  simplified, as each of the two “extremes” includes its own paradox. In order to perfect a technique or working process, the artist needs to break with what is accepted by his/her peers. In order to expand the boundaries of what is accepted, the creator needs to have an intimate knowledge of that which constitutes the boundaries of his/her field of practice.

Nonetheless, Professor Luft hints at something that is essential to our lives. He indicates the constant need for creativity and signals its movement along two interconnected edges/limits: tradition and invention. But most importantly, he emphasises that these edges/limits remain in constant flux themselves. Tradition and invention exist in continuous dialogue, like the dialogue of past and present in Bergson’s famous cone––a figure that illustrates that all past presents are contained in the present moment. Otherwise, Bergson avows, language would be impossible.

For artists who whose practices are concerned primarily with challenging the boundaries of art, it is natural to meet thinkers and practitioners from related fields. For instance, if you work with performance, you will most likely encounter creators in theatre and dance (many of whom, themselves, look to art to expand their practices). In my search to understand and expand the field of art, I have met predominantly with scientists and architects. The latter was natural, since when I went to art school I selected to work with the American sculptor Bernhard Kirschenbaum, rather than a local painter who was my appointed professor. Kirschenbaum was an architect by training who had started his career building Buckminster Fuller’s first geodesic domes. With him I learned many things that remain at the core of my practice. He also taught us that architecture is the nature and canvas of the city and forms an important part in shaping our lives.

With this in mind, I started dialoguing with architects and scientists in my early twenties. I was struck by the fact that they had very different working methods from artists. They worked in teams whose discussions never ended, and they focused on discovering rather than conveying a given idea. They were dealing with problem-solving both on practical and conceptual levels. I also saw that their respective disciplines were conservative and inhibiting in ways that were uncommon in the art world. In other words, it was through collaborating with other disciplines that I learned about art – about its nature and its boundaries. I found the tools that I needed to develop my practice and to expand the field in which I was working.

I also understood that making sense of the world around me was contingent on a continual investigation of the differences and similitudes between fields. I needed to see knowledge as something that can travel both in time and through different cultures, whether geographical or disciplinary. Or, phrased differently: what is the difference between production and invention? What does repetition mean in the context of creation? At first glance, these seem to be easy problems. But once we look closer at the questions, a greater complexity emerges. Something is always different in relationship to something familiar and known. We can establish the difference between a horse and a cow. But how do start to define what the difference is between a colour and a whale, or between jealousy and a galaxy?

The Inclusion: Many cultural practices that explore transdisciplinary encounters run the paradoxical risk of fortifying the very same institutional boundaries they may have set out to make more porous. Moreover, the introduction of conflict into a specific disciplinary field often presupposes and consolidates the recognition of normative forms of expertise. At the same time, advocating for an amateur relation to knowledge often corresponds to the hampering of an insider’s potential for specialist action. With these problemmatics in mind, we wish to ask: how do you define the expert? What role might this term play in your practice?

Per Hüttner: First of all, the process of a higher specialization is inevitable and will not be halted in any foreseeable future. We cannot return to the Renaissance, where a single person could contribute to art, science and technology in the way that Leonardo da Vinci did. Those days are long gone. Today’s research and production in a single field is so immense that it is impossible to have an overview of all the exploration that is being undertaken.

So, we have to accept that art is art and science is science. They are both tools to make sense of the chaos that surrounds us (and that sometimes grows in our inner world). But even when the two address the same problems, they do so in very different ways. To start with, we cannot understand art. We can appreciate it. We can derive knowledge from it. Art provokes thinking in its audience. But this does not mean that the audience understands what they experience. It does not even mean that the creator fully understands the finished work. The artist’s relationship to the artwork changes over time. The works that we produce are like friends from whom we learn  and among whom we develop over time. They are not fixed, they shapeshift. As artists, we co-create poetic knowledge together with the audience in the process of producing and living with our work. We cannot overemphasise how art’s modes of production and functionality differ with respect to other processes found in contemporary society. Yet, this does not mean that art is disconnected from the worlds of commerce, science and technology – quite the opposite. It functions according to another logic.

When we evaluate art, the only measuring principle at our disposal rests in seeing how the artwork affects its audience and to what degree it provokes thought in the individual who experiences it. A work of art that can be understood by its audience is at best a decoration or a distraction. If artwork could be understood, people would not stage Shakespeare, write books about Shenshui paintings or read Icelandic sagas centuries after they were created. These would be forgotten. This difference is also the reason why dialogue between genres remains essential. It allows us to stay focused on what we are doing. If you ask me what an artist is, a good answer could be “a person who continuously leaves his/her comfort zone.” Maybe that goes for all creators? Dialogues between genres remain essential because they force us into a continual departure from what we know and remind us that we have to deal with the fundamental paradoxes of our lives. Not an easy task, but a deeply inspiring choice of life!

When the dialogue in a genre or discipline becomes too self-contained, it is bound to go stale. When we move outside our comfort zones, we become aware of our own vulnerability – and I mean this in the best sense of the word. We become aware of the limits of our knowledge and working methods. We have to remain far humbler when we approach another genre or discipline. Maybe, being a devoted contrarian from the country of Linnaeus has made me a convinced Leibnizian who always chooses principles over compartmentalization. The former allow us to go on developing, while the latter will eventually lead us down a blind alley.

The life of the artist has a poetic twist to it. We are always trying to undo what has been done before and to push the boundaries farther. But being an artist is a proposition, an evasive state/role that is activated like flashes in a thunderstorm. We cannot reduce “I travel” to “I am a travelling being” anymore than we can interchange “I think” with “I am a thinking person.” Thought is not a constant. It is a predicate that passes ceaselessly from one thought to another. The artist not only thinks and provokes thinking in his/her audience, but also activates his/her body and sometimes produces objects. There are no rules to how we can activate our audiences, and there is no guarantee that who produced something of importance yesterday will also do so tomorrow. As a matter of fact, what was important yesterday does not necessarily carry the same weight even today.

What I do know is that dialogues between disciplines have, throughout my career, been extremely important to furthering my knowledge and to finding new solutions to existing problems. We do not know which problems will have to be addressed in the future. There is no point in worrying about that either. This is because as long as we encourage difference and diversity and focus on the true problems at hand, creativity will get us out of all the jams that we can get ourselves into.

But in order to be prepared, we have always to return to compossibility. What would the world be like if Adam had not sinned? What can we learn from the Stoics about how to undo Platonism, even knowing both to be impossible? Phrased differently, we all have to go back to Hades to try to bring back our own and private Eurydice.The fact that we look back (and if we remain curious rather than idealist we will always turn around) we reveal our humanity and nothing could be more important and beautiful.

This is why I am extremely weary of experts. They tend to try to remove what is human in the world and turn it into a clockwork universe. But then what is the point? If the universe were mechanical, we wouldn’t have had a big bang. Following from this, we wouldn’t have a universe at all. I suspect that second-rate experts are too scared to reveal their humanity and that they use information to shield themselves from the world. Experts do bring back Eurydicefrom Hades, but they learn nothing in the process. I am always more than happy to turn around. I reveal my curiosity and my humanity in doing so. I am proud to be a lover. I am proud to fail. I am happy to fail as long as I learn something in the process.

Per Hüttner has been exceptionally generous to share with The Inclusion an essay entitled “Never Forget Temporality,” which will be published in Vision Forum Film - Three Film Collaborations between Sweden & China, available February 2013. For additional information, please visit: http://www.visionforum.eu/

Never Forget Temporality: Three film collaborations between Sweden and China

How to Start a Dialogue between Cultures?

In Effektivia, a partially Chinese crew filmed the Swedish world, and in The River an entirely Swedish team depicted the meeting of traditional and contemporary China. It is through this dialogue between the two countries that the project has been able to engage young people in reflecting on how globalisation operates and how it infiltrates and slowly alters our daily lives. They had the possibility to see how dissimilar and yet identical the lives of people are on the other side. The political systems remain different and the value of human lives remains profoundly unbalanced.

But the difficulty of shaping one’s own life remains the same. The political, economic, and social pressures alienate us from our own lives in similar ways. The three artistic propositions that make up this project agree that a meaningful existence can never be created in solitude. It has to be built in dialogue with the surrounding world. But how can we do that when all attempts at talking, sharing, and loving lead to further misunderstandings, new conflicts, and a deeper solitude?

Effektivia:

As absurd as it might sound, it all started with the signing of a legal document. The signing of a document that we have never seen and whose magnitude and complexity we can only imagine. The discussions with director Jesper Frilund started with him saying that it was Ford who first bought Volvo Automotive, but when it was sold to Geely it was taken over by the Chinese. (For those not familiar with Sweden, I need to point out that the Volvo car has been an important symbol of the country’s engineering skills and visionary technical advancement. I cannot tell you how many times I have met foreigners who talk ceaselessly about their beloved Volvos when I mention my country of origin.) It was this difference in phrasing that first sparked a dialogue about Effektivia. A company was not taken over by another company, but rather by an entire nation, and an extremely foreign one as well!

Frilund teamed up with a long-time collaborator, scriptwriter and director Marcus Fernstad, and a series of sketches quickly began to take shape about temporary workers in a factory in small-town Sweden that is bought by a faceless Chinese conglomerate. One scene led to another, and before we knew it we were looking at something that could be both a script for a feature film and the pilot for a TV series.

Effektivia is a profound journey into the human psyche and our contemporary situation. At first glance, the film appears to be a happy-go-lucky comedy about life in a small town in Sweden. But it gradually surfaces that it deals with darker and far more complex issues. How do we deal with the unknown? How can we grapple with life-changing events like a divorce, an unknown culture, new political and economic situations and new technologies? Every character in the film sees the world from his/her own perspective and they all remain unable to understand each other – simply because they can never leave their own point of view. It is their own inability to see or consider each other’s perspective that renders them lonely and unhappy. The sadder they get, the more they have to convince their surrounding community about their own success and joyful existence. Their insecurity makes them hurt each other unintentionally and end up snaring themselves in an intricate net of well-intended actions that always have the opposite outcome. 

During the long and particularly enjoyable working sessions in which we developed the details of the script, Marcus Fernstad made us laugh so much that it hurt when he read the lines. His interpretation of “Maggan,” the chain-smoking woman who defines both Effektivia and the village of Gusum, was too good to be ignored. So we decided to allow Marcus to fill her shoes – which he does so magically that few people even realise that it is a man who plays the part. Again, the more we pushed the film into paradoxical absurdity, the more it made sense.

It is exactly the absurd that is the core of Frilund and Fernstad’s endeavour. It looks at how humans are willing to accept some of the most oppressing absurdities and fight with great fervour against trivialities in their surroundings and yet refuse to see the central issues in life. In Effektivia, no one takes on the world or fights back. The characters accept the unfairness of the world. They only fight each other, while lamenting the injustice of their predicament.

Retrieving Corpse for Money by Zhang Yi

Retrieving Corpse for Money, 2010, by Zhang Yi

The River:

A controversial documentary photograph, Retrieving Corpse for Money, was the inspiration for The River, a fictional drama with a starting point in true events. Focusing on the coming of age of two boys, the film takes place in a small village on the banks of the Yangtze River in Sichuan Province. It suggests that a fisherman uses local teenagers, who are good at swimming to lure tourists into the water. The tourists attempting to save the “drowning” children die of exhaustion. The local children, familiar with the undercurrents in the river, survive. The old man fishes the victims’ bodies out of the river and returns them to their mourning relatives. But in order to get the bodies, they have to pay him a fee. It is important that we never quite know what happens; this ambiguity allows the film’s director, Yang Tingting, to paint a vivid picture of human struggle without losing the story’s poetic side.

The River was shot entirely with local amateurs as actors and extras. Yang worked closely with the amateurs and developed the characters in close dialogue with a group of teenage boys from the small village in Sichuan. In her text about the rehearsal process, she states that in the end she was unable to distinguish fact from fiction. When she writes this, it is not a reflection on authenticity. What she so accurately pinpoints is that the story connects back to the everyday life of its audiences – whether they are European or Asian. It deals, in an engaged and critical way, with the world that surrounds us. It is here that we find a parallel with Effektivia. Neither of the two films creates a shared phantasm. They allow the viewer to draw knowledge from the events depicted on the basis of his or her own background. Both films are investigations into how we struggle with problems in our daily lives and at the same time deal with timeless issues like greed and fear of the unknown. They reflect on the here and now and how we relate to the lives of other people around us. Both films transgress routine and compel us to face our own lives and how we deal with situations of conflict.

The River, just like Effektivia, circles around interpretations of the law. But the small village is far from the political centre in Beijing.

“We fish out the bodies of the river and ask a small fee for our labour. It is totally justified,” Uncle Decai, the fisherman declares. It is impossible to disagree with what he says, we cannot take sides. The characters operate according to their own logic. The film is not about good or bad, but about the human condition and the conflicts that mark our daily life.

The film examines how globalisation puts pressure on the young and creates ethical conflicts between the community and the individual people and families that make up the smallest cells of our societies. But as Yang Tingting says, it is not a story about China. It is a story about greed, and it could happen anywhere. But she has to tell it in the country where she grew up – because it is only there that she knows the details of how people act and react. Yet the fact that the story takes place in China brings us back to temporality. Changes happen so fast there that, from one generation to the next, there is an abyss that renders communication extremely difficult and fraught with dangerous traps.

Assembly Line:

The video work by Shanghai-based artist Li Xiaofei forms a part of a series in which he mixes images of machines in full production mode with interviews with different people who work at the factories depicted. The work poses questions that are central to the project and connects with the other two films. What is the difference between production and invention? What does repetition mean in the context of creation? At first glance, these seem like easy problems. But once we look closer at the questions, a greater complexity emerges. Something is always different in relationship to something familiar and known. We can define what the difference is between a horse and a cow. But how do start to define what the difference is between an amoeba and a whale, or between jealousy and a galaxy?

All of us are dealing with mass-produced objects on an everyday basis. We use and individualise our computers and eat chickens that come off a production line. But we do so without necessarily thinking about the sites of production and the people who are involved in these processes. The work of Li Xiaofei closes this gap, and Assembly Line changes the parameters of how we perceive mass-produced goods and the individuals who interact with them.

In an art context, it is impossible not to ask if art has become inscribed in this production-line mentality. To what degree has it become acceptable that the artist is a producer of semi-original objects whose primary purpose is to build on his/her brand name and the vanity of the collector? And can this activity inspire thinking in the audience that visits the exhibition where these objects are shown? Or formulated differently: Is art so convinced of its own good nature that it rarely provokes thinking in its audience?

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Li Xiaofei leaves the camera running before and after he has asked his questions, and this allows him to capture the humanity of his interviewees. When they are not “performing,” something different, poetic and unexpected seeps out of the depicted factory workers. It is in its musicality that Li Xiaofei’s videos make sense. What the interviewed workers say is as expected as the sound that the machines make. However, the importance is not in what they say, but rather in the pauses and hesitations that reveal their humanity and make us feel empathy with them. It is that fraction of a second when we understand something that goes beyond words, images, or cultures.

We tried to get Li Xiaofei to film in three factories in Sweden. All three negotiations started with great enthusiasm on behalf of the people working at these corporate sites. But in the end we were met with the same negative answer. We have no possibility of knowing what turned the enthusiasts into the realm of negativity. But we cannot ignore that the fear of industrial espionage appears to be enormous when it comes to Chinese citizens. Can we really trust this stranger? In private companies, fear of the unknown is bigger than the curiosity to discover something new. (It is interesting, because it sounds like Effektivia.) The interest of the individuals working at these companies was clearly quenched by the ink of the higher administrators. We cannot avoid asking if an American, German or English artist or filmmaker would have been met with the same suspicion? We are brought to raise the question of whether the direct censorship in China finds another form of secrecy that unveils fear for the unknown in the West. This is not an oppression from the outside, but a self-imposed restriction that mushrooms in our inner worlds. 

The Importance of International Dialogue

Vision Forum’s working processes address the need for alternative forms of education and knowledge production – accommodating multiplicity and embracing invention. In order for this to work, we need to find ways to enrich our daily lives through meaningful dialogues with people in our immediate surroundings and through that to also enrich the lives of others. We have to overcome our fears of the unknown and find the poetic in our everyday experience.

Vision Forum has developed strategies to allow artistic practices that exist between genres and disciplines a space to breathe and develop. With Vision Forum Film we produce work that creates dialogues between visual art and film. It is hard to imagine three film projects that are more different from each other than Assembly Line, Effektivia, and The River. And yet they are held together thematically. They all provoke a dialogue between east and west, and also challenge their audiences, compelling them to reflect on the world that surrounds them.

There is a special magic in what film can capture that is inherent to the medium. A good example is the way that the middle-aged characters Maggan and Berit look at each other while they sweep the floor in silence in Effektivia. The words they utter tell us how they arrange the practicalities of their lives with razor-sharp precision. But their eyes tell a different story. The sequence captures their respective inner worlds, something that can only be expressed through the poetic.

Similarly, the gazes of Yu Xin and Qin Chuan, the teenage protagonists in The River, speak a universal language that holds a complexity that cannot be retold or explained. It has to be seen. And it has to be seen in the context of the story that unravels or that they unfold through their actions. The two boys look at each other before Yu Xin throws a Molotov cocktail. They perform this act with the naïve intention of setting straight the injustices in this world. This action is a gesture of hope that the violence that they have been subjected to all their lives will go away and their anger may be forever stilled. But instead their action pulls them deeper into a vortex of escalating brutality and crime.

Taking Control of Your Own Life

All three film projects portray characters that struggle to regain control of their lives. They describe how these people cope with the chaotic world that surrounds them. In Effektivia, a Swedish company that has been family-run for generations is taken over by a Chinese conglomerate; decisions about the employees’ uncertain futures are all of a sudden made on the other side of the planet by faceless corporate men who know nothing about the lives and values of the Swedish workers. In The River, it is unclear if whether the fishermen do to sustain their livelihood is illegal. But the central events in the film revolve around the negotiation between money on the one hand and human values on the other. In Assembly Line, the interviewees talk about how their employment or entrepreneurial endeavours in factories are related to financial decisions that are made elsewhere and about how each individual person is affected by these legal and financial decisions. 

Each of the three film projects, in its own way, forces us to deal with the unknown – deliberately confusing its audiences. But it is through this confusion that they make sense, because confusion is productive and creative. It is the unknown that inspires us to move on, and the comfort of the established that make us lazy and complacent. What is counterproductive in confusion is our inability to deal with the situation, because we feel scared or insecure when we are confused. So we have to ask ourselves how we can develop strategies to ensure that any meeting with the unknown can become something positive. What can we do to stimulate situations where confusion does not necessarily lead to a feeling of fear or insecurity? How can we inspire confidence and through that a sense of renewed potential?

It is the meeting with the unknown that allows us to move beyond the rigidity of the wor(l)d of law, the ideal, and to open the gates to the kingdom of poetry: a place where “what does it mean?” has no bearing, but rather allows us to move on, and to further our existence through a dialogue with the world and the people around us. So it is essential that we do not lean too heavily on single ideas and focus on knowledge that can travel in space in time. When our world becomes mono-cultural, we will lose our potential to inspire thinking and lead meaningful lives. 

We cannot rest or put up our feet. Because once we stop, complacency catches up and our brains grow numb. All art is resistance. It is resistance against our own apathy and laziness. It is resistance against norms that are taken for granted. It is resistance that forces us to think. It is the resistance that generates pleasure in our existence.

The great Russian Filmmaker Andrey Tarkovsky writes about this in Sculpting in Time:

“Time is necessary to man, so that, made flesh, he may be able to realize himself as a personality. But I am not thinking of linear time, meaning the possibility of getting something done, performing some action. The action is a result, and what I am considering is the cause which makes man incarnate in a moral sense.”

Nothing can compel us to think more than meetings with the unknown. The unknown is all around us. But sometimes we have to travel to the other side of the planet to be able to see it in our neighbour and appreciate its beauty.This is what the Chinese experience teaches us from the I-Ching to today’s bustling mega-cities – there are appropriate times to ford the river. Never forget temporality.


Per Hüttner, 2013


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