At the Intangible Economies forum in November 2011 Fillip Associate Editor Antonia Hirsch interviewed artist Olaf Nicolai in Vancouver. Here is an excerpt from that interview, as published in Fillip 15 (46-48).
Antonia Hirsch: I’d like for us to get back to a couple of things that you mentioned earlier and that, in my view, specifically relate to two of your works and that are, in turn, connected to this idea of sensibility and also to corporeality. Your new project, Escalier du Chant, is a piece that was commissioned by the Neue Pinakothek Museum in Munich. For this work, you invited twelve composers to produce a cappella works based on current events to be performed on twelve Sundays throughout 2011 on the stairs of the gallery, where visitors and singers mingle during these performances. Together, the songs are intended to form a sort of chronicle of the year. In connection with this project, you recently stated in an interview that it is the spatial proximity between visitors and singers that produces a kind of agency, a desire to act. I thought this was an interesting point to make because what you seem to propose is that bodily empathy generates agency—which is convincing. After all, it is the body that is our “sensing machine,” and through sensory input we develop affective responses to these stimuli. In this context, I would also like to bring up another work of yours, Chant d’Amour (2003), a work that, in some sense, is diametrically opposed to Escalier du Chant. The work is a sort of restaging of Jean Genet’s film Un chant d’amour (1950). Yet your piece is without actors, and you introduce an element of crass commercialism. Where Genet’s film uses a natural straw as one of its central elements, you introduce a McDonald’s drinking straw. This work also trades on sensuality and affect, but not, let’s say, a more neutral or empathic affect as in Escalier. Rather, in reference to Genet, it has a clearly erotic tone. Yet through the work we find this absolute physical isolation of the body, not only in the Genet film, but also in your rendition of it, where there is not even a body present. So in Escalier du Chant there is the suggestion of a political motivation—partially because of the current events that become the composers’ inspiration, while Genet’s film is also highly political. Not only did it present homosexuality at a time when it was a social taboo, but his, as well as your, work also represents subversive power relationships in which (state) authority cannot ultimately control (physical) desire. So I guess what I’m asking is how do you see the relationship between affect—in all its various forms—and something like agency or political consciousness?
Olaf Nicolai: Well, what fascinated me so much about Un chant d’amour, aside from the setting, was the role of the voice, which, in this case, is absent.
AH: Exactly. One wonders, why is the piece called Un chant d’amour? There is no song; in fact, it’s a silent film. You have been dealing with voice, and its absence, quite a bit recently—for example, in your work Innere Stimme (Inner Voice, 2011).
ON: That was a development that surprised me as well. … In Chant d’Amour, I didn’t initially plan to do anything with voice, but directly next to the Volume! Foundation, who had invited me to make the work for their space in Rome, there is a prison called Regina Coeli (Queen of Heaven). It’s named after a monastery, which used to be in this location. The building is striking not only because it is immediately recognizable as a prison, but in particular because of its sight barriers. These are tilted barriers in front of the windows so the prisoners can’t look out, but light can still enter the cells from above. These barriers look somewhat like minimalist objects. They formed the basis of one of the works in the gallery where I reconstructed such a barrier and installed it on a wall inside the space. Anyway, the sight barriers have the effect that outside of visiting hours, the inmates communicate with their families through the windows by calling to one another, like in a call-and-response-style song. The crazy thing is that Regina Coeli is also the name of such an antiphon—it is one of the important Marian antiphons of the Christian Church. When I became aware of all this, I realized I wanted to do something that had to do with voice. I wanted to find a way in which I could connect the idea of the voice with the space, specifically this kind of cell space that doesn’t permit you to look beyond its walls. This is how the straw became a central focus point. In Genet’s film, a cigarette is shared through this straw, which is inserted into a hole in a wall that separates the cells of the film’s two protagonists—which is to say, breath is shared. I had begun to increasingly view singing as an alternate kind of breathing and this is how, thinking about the project in Rome, the space opened up for me. After all, the drinking straw indicates the absent body, because the straw needs a mouth, and the mouth somehow evokes a body.
AH: Or rather, now that we are talking about this, it occurs to me—though perhaps this is a little too literal—that the walls of the cell could also be read as the boundaries of subjectivity, where the straw becomes the only opening. …
ON: That was also the reason why I decided to use a McDonald’s drinking straw. The drinking straw has, of course, an etymological and historical link to agricultural straw—a material that has many metaphorical connotations, as in “to clutch at straws.” In a strange way, the drinking straw can come to also represent nature. ... So to counter this, I wanted to introduce an object that refuses this superficial naturalization, and the McDonald’s straw fulfilled that criteria. Plus, there are a large number of McDonald’s franchises in the city centre of Rome (and in close proximity to the gallery), which, for Italy, is a big deaI. I became interested in articulating a paradox, namely between, on the one hand, the straw at which you might be clutching—or in this case, with reference to Genet’s film, the straw that pretends to facilitate exchange—and, on the other hand, the straw that is connected to an economy that is incapable of reasonably satisfying needs and desires. This is the crux of the matter for me, the paradox that arises from the connection between the needs and desires that articulate themselves through an economic structure and the needs and desires that are ostensibly satisfied by that economic structure—I think it would be reductive to describe this constellation simply as alienation.
The artwork produced by Olaf Nicolai for the Goethe Satellite @ Fillip will be circulated in Fillip 16 in March, 2012.
More about this project