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Christoph Faulhaber

24.06.2011 16:17 No comments

Christoph Faulhaber’s art imitates reality, functions as an extension of it and develops its possible and at times shocking scenarios. His works are fixed situations that any of us could find ourselves in. Besides being realistic, they are also absurd and provocative and often highlight the weak spots within the system we live in. In 2009, the German artist stirred up a hornet’s nest by hanging a sign announcing the construction of a refugee camp for prisoners from Guantanamo in Hamburg’s brand-new, harbor-adjacent neighborhood of HafenCity. He provoked a similarly strong reaction with a guerilla performance in which he dressed up as a private security guard and “kept order” in front of the American Embassy in Berlin. Given the scandalous topics his work addresses, Faulhaber is frequently labeled as a “political artist.” He rejects this image, however, borrowing a phrase from the philosopher Jacques Ranciere: “art is political even before it begins spreading political messages.” Here’s what Faulhaber had to say to Edno:

D.P. In 2004 you began the project Mister Security, in which you voluntarily carried out the functions of a private security guard. How did you come up with the idea for this performance?

C.F. The goal of the project was to become the first artist to end up on the US’s list of suspected terrorists and thus to change my biography forever. One day, as I was passing by the US consulate in Munich, I started wondering what would happen if I tried to take a picture of the building. I had only snapped three photos when a police officer appeared, told me to stop and took down my personal info. He explained that taking photos was forbidden, since I could be a terrorist. This, however, contradicts our legal system, which always starts from the assumption that we are innocent until proven guilty. This kind of general suspicion towards citizens on the part of the government leads to restrictions on our constitutionally guaranteed rights. It was precisely this contemporary form of iconoclasm that inspired me to look at pictures within the geopolitical context of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and to examine the significance of the picture as a media tool in the waging of war. I wanted to test out the multifunctional use of the still camera – as a threatening object on the one hand, and as a means for observation and documentation on the other. My idea is tied to the famous photograph by Robert Capa from 1936 of a dying soldier in the Spanish Civil War. That photo quite clearly manifests the connection between the various levels of reality – gun and camera, gunman and photographer, victim and object. In Mister Security I myself was simultaneously transformed into gunman, victim and photographer.

(In 2005 Christoph Faulhaber and Lukasz Chrobok officially founded a private security agency. They took it upon themselves to provide “additional security” in front of the American embassies and consulates in Berlin, Hamburg, Warsaw and Munich (something the law does not prohibit) and documented the reactions of the employees of the institutions in question. In 2007 Faulhaber and Chrobok published the brochure Mister Security. To Serve and to Observe and presented it at Documenta 12.)

D.P. In your performance Burberry, you panhandled in front of boutiques in the shopping areas of large cities, dressed in handmade clothes with the pattern of the famous fashion label Burberry. Tell us more about that project.

C.F. Just like the homeless person, the city, fashion and patterns, including the Burberry brand, are all social symbols of a sort. This project, besides addressing the growing privatization of public space, also raised the question of city marketing – how a city comes to have a certain image. When we did this project, the hip thing was that cities created hundreds of plastic sculptures relating to some iconic reference in the citie’s history, like cows, fish, bears, banks etc. The naked sculptures were placed in front of resellers and stores, which were responsible for their appearance, then were designed or dressed by their reseller’s – a grotesque army of plastic image soldiers. I was curious about how far this type of marketing could go and whether the idea could be transferred onto homeless people and beggars. And so the Burberry pattern came to mind. I made an outfit from it and begged for four days in a row in front of various Burberry stores. Some passersby actually thought it was a new kind of advertisement.

D.P. Your projects usually take place outdoors, in the so-called public space. Why is that the best stage for your work?

C.F. Public space is something very unusual – it doesn’t really exist, yet we act as if it begins right outside our front doors. Today people have built up an idealistic concept of public space, comparing it to the ancient agora. The latter, however, was a place with clearly defined boundaries that was used for meetings, holidays and markets. In my personal definition of public space, what’s important are the dynamics, movement, friction, cracks, clashes and the agony. On city streets and squares, as well as on the Internet, unoccupied, undeveloped spaces and functional niches exist, and for that reason it is important to find new formulations for them, different techniques for their recreation and new ways of confronting them. Public space is interesting for the artist, because there is potential for creative material there. Characters come to life there: the people who inhabit it encounter one another in their typical roles, with their models of behavior and personalities, surrounded by well-organized consumer worlds, by mechanisms of social and political control. It is as if the faces from the billboards come down into everyday reality and come to life as their miniature copies.

D.P. Is it fair to say that your work examines the discrepancies between images and their incarnation in reality?

C.F. I recently spoke with a psychologist and she told me that according to the latest neuroscience research, mediated and real perceptions are processed by one and the same area in the brain. This means that the media environment may also be a source of experience. This, in turn, would mean that the motto from the 1960s and 70s about the fusing of art and life is already a reality. So I’d rather not differentiate between pictures in media and those in reality, but would rather focus our attention on decoding them all. The media theorist W. J. T. Mitchell defined this process as “a paleontology of the picture.”

D.P. It seems as if Mitchell’s theory of the “Pictorial Turn” in contemporary culture has had a powerful influence on your work.

C.F. I was impressed by Mitchell’s book Art in the Public Sphere and especially by the idea of “Cloning Terror.” Mitchell juxtaposed photos from September 11 with those of Dolly the Sheep. In both pictures lies the quiet threat of the potential for uncontrolled reproduction. Pictures begin to live a life of their own and this gives rise to a discomfort in people, which stems from the feeling of uncertainty about the future. However, politicians define this feeling as “insecurity” and use precisely this as a justification for the war against terrorism. The political processes can be compared to the pictures, which lead an independent life. In this way, the terror itself is disseminated via pictures of terror. Due to media pictures, for example, we imagine the prison in Guantanamo as a black hole on the globe. The prisoners there are more difficult to transport than radioactive waste, despite the fact that we’re only talking about 240 people. But the idea of “cloning terror” does not refer only to geopolitical processes, but also to everything tied to fashion, consumption and marketing. Plastic surgery and body-building are excellent examples of the spread of that cloning onto people’s living flesh, and precisely their transformation into pin-ups. In my opinion, popular culture means living in pictures. My question is: is there life outside it? That’s why in my work I’m not trying to reach the essence of the picture, but rather I’m searching for a world of “Non-Pictures” as I call it, which could eventually exist somewhere, as a type of preserve, utopia or future.

D.P. When is a project successful or unsuccessful? Failure seems to be a driving force in your creative process.

C.F. Failure, rejection, frequent flops, and resistance are more productive than recognition and success. The principle of failure is likely part of my working method, because I usually begin my projects with a quite general idea and after that I figure out where there’s potential and what direction I can take things in. In most of the projects there is this vital element, something unpredictable because different forces start to interact with my work. So, like the metaphor of the virus my work starts to spread into heads and bodies and integrates people nolens volens. Referring to the various strategies and practices in recent art works, I would propose to speak of a new regiment of art, the “Socialism of Art” and the “Non-Picture.”

Christoph Faulhaber is taking part in the group exhibition Changes at the exhibition space Halle 14 in Leipzig until 24 July.
Ongoing solo exhibitions: Malkasten Düsseldorf until 3 July, GAM Galerie Obrist Essen 10 June until 24 Aug., Produzentengalerie opening 23 June 2011.

text by Desislava Pavlova translation by Angela Rodel