Moritz Scheper (I), Johannes Bendzulla (B)
I: To give our conversation here a little momentum, I’ve come up with a few occasionally hyperbolic theses I’d like to confront you with. The first of them is: even if it’s likely no one has ever labelled themselves as such, you’re a post-internet artist!
B: I’m worried that’s kind of true. This is definitely a discourse I came into contact with when it all kicked off, and I was super fascinated by it, I’ve got to admit. Because it was crazy how suddenly everyone was sharing in this zeitgeist that just popped up, and it was an aesthetic I also had something to do with myself. I played video games a lot as a teenager, so I’ve had a kind of affinity with computer-generated images for a long time. That’s why I found P.I.A. totally engrossing and engaged with it quite a bit, in a way that was really almost purely formal and aesthetic. So yes, post-internet art has influenced me in some way. But pretty much in a kind of weirdly affirmative flash that lasted about two years.
I: Were there any particular phenomena or key post-internet works that you were especially into?
B: I saw the exhibition “Speculations on Anonymous Materials” at the Fridericianum in 2013, when everything was “museified,” so to speak. And that formal language excited me even back then. That way of dealing with, I’d say, materiality, corporeality, and digital abstraction. I thought it was cool somehow, but it all wore off again pretty quickly. I think in truth it was the thrill of the new, on a really straightforward buzz level. I got a bit lost in a few aesthetic experiments myself back then, too (laughs). The artistic process just became kind of boring for me though, as I hardly ever ended up with anything good.
I: I’m going in kind of hard on post-internet because there’s also a kind of technophilia about you too, maybe one that you’ve preserved from back then?
B: Yes, for sure. I think that one constant in my work are those aesthetic strategies where it’s about corporeality, coincidence, the organic, the unpredictable, and the clearly separated—always in contrast to anything you could call “mathematical abstraction.” The world we live in is very much defined by binary structures. Like ones and zeros as the basic units of computer operations. This is in a way a basic constitutive principle that permeates the entire world we live in, and which is also extremely reductionist. But it works and is accepted as totally natural. In principle, dualisms are very strongly present in the entirety of Western thought and the way of organizing the world that goes with it, and this is something that to me seems problematic in very many ways. Nature/culture, reality/simulation—these are the kinds of oppositions a lot of my work refers to.
For me, the point is always to reflect on this. I work with computer aesthetics a lot, but in a way that makes everything look a little weird, a not-quite-realistic simulation. Either too perfect, or put together with technical faults. Usually with organic elements like plants, animals, and human body parts. Computer aesthetics tend towards asepsis, an unnatural perfection, to being inhuman or superhuman. And this is something that really intrigues me.
I: Next, a thesis on the methods in your work. And it’s this: that your work feeds off of the deep humiliation of not being a painter.
B: (laughs) Well, I’ve got to admit I can understand why you’d ask me something like that. But I wouldn’t say it’s a humiliation, nothing as direct as that. I mean, I don’t feel humiliated right now. I’m a big fan of painting! Painting is actually the thing that I really like looking at, in terms of art. There are all kinds of aesthetic strategies where you can take matter—abstract materials, pure color—and create things that recognizably refer back to the world, while the material still always retains a presence as a material. So it never recedes like in a photographic or digital image, where the materiality all but disappears. This internal opposition between what’s represented and the materials used for that representation is a really fundamental opposition for me, something that I find super important in art. Even the fact that the actions of the person painting leave material traces behind, which then allow you as a viewer to understand certain decisions and processes, that’s something I finds really stimulating. A painter’s actions aren’t symbolic gestures. They manifest themselves in a very tangible way, in a material way, and that’s why I feel they have a very unique power.
The basic aspiration of my work is to evoke in the viewer a kind of constructive estrangement from the world, one that might even act to shake things up, including their relationships to each other, and thus offer a basis for rethinking them. So while I do like to use basic affirmative elements to get people on board, it’s fundamentally always also about some moment of estrangement. And this moment of estrangement is created by “staging” your own means of representation, so to speak, without the things merging into each other, one-to-one. And that is definitely a painterly quality that I always try to build into my work, which is actually mostly digital.
I: Let’s take a closer look at two of these techniques, which crop up with you time and again. Maybe you can say something about how you use them. Firstly trompe-l’œil, and then also—or maybe by contrast—glitches. You mobilize these in a specific way that is repeated constantly. One gets the impression (laughs) you’re trying to achieve something with them...
B: Yes, definitely. I think chance is super important, even as a kind of counter-mathematical moment. So that’s basically how I would label it. In the digital arena you try to work with chance, to create situations where your plan doesn’t actually work out and unexpected things are also able to emerge. That’s definitely something that’s super important to me. Always include the potential for error within the digital.
I: The definition of “glitch” that I found is “temporary false statement in a logic circuit.”
B: Oh, yeah, that’s nice. I’d not come across that. Creating something like that aesthetically, even with digital means, is something I actually kind of like. And as for the second question... exactly, trompe-l’œil. What I find particularly cool about trompe-l’œil is the moment of disillusionment—the illusion and the simultaneous disillusionment. When I work with trompe-l’œil, it’s often in an aesthetic framework that’s still halfway plausible. That means that in my works there are faked image elements with simulated plasticity that—with regard to spatial depth—are still on a relatively realistic scale. The simulated picture frames that appear in many images, for example. I repeatedly use optical illusions that take place just underneath the surface of the image and thus appear plausible, so it takes the viewer a relatively long time to register that something’s not right.
And that’s also just a very contemporary aesthetic—after all, we work with screens all the time; with flat displays, that is. Creating an illusion of plasticity also just kind of means, let’s say, getting closer to the basic constant of human perception—that spatiality is super important to how we orient ourselves. That’s why things like user interfaces are designed to help us navigate, and why a lot of what we get up to on our screens is conceived using that logic. This is a very self-explanatory, aesthetic, and functional moment that we deal with every day. Focusing on this digital-aesthetic moment, demonstrating it in a particular way and constantly playing around with it too, these things are all kind of important to me.
I: It seems like dysfunctionality is important to you, then. Like, trompe-l’œil with disillusionment, and of course glitches are also a form of non-functioning. Is it key for you to focus on dysfunctionality, to represent it, to produce it, or would that reading of mine be off the mark?
B: No (laughs), dysfunctionality is cool. Because, well, functionality obviously just means that you have a particular idea of how things should go. And within the parameters of what is good/bad or what works/doesn’t work, certain goals are or aren’t met. And for me that’s also the potential of art, in a totally old-school way—that it dissolves these kinds of categorizations a little. Functionality in and of itself is often only seemingly evident. Because there are... things which everyone seems to agree on because they are pragmatically functional and so they generate something positive. Things for which it seems totally plausible to a lot of people that they are positive.
I: But which at the same time exclude other things, and so marginalize them.
B: Exactly, yeah. Definitely.
I: I want to come back to my thesis on why painting is so important. Your approach obviously goes beyond a pure interest in aesthetic strategies. In your work, does painting also function as a kind of cipher for art in general?
B: It actually does, sometimes. Or for a particular idea of art, at least, one that has to do with expressivity, the performance of individuality, and uninterrupted subjectivity. For me, ideas of immediacy also play a role in this. Other [German] buzzwords crop up a lot in this context, like intrinsic motivation, ability to innovate, creativity, and the lone warrior. More than anything, I’m interested in popular images of artists and their reception in other social spheres, and here the figure of the painter is still unrivalled. In my art practice and my organization, I repeatedly encounter what I see as highly problematic issues that understandably play hardly any role in the popular reception of artistic creativity and subjectivity.
I: You mean problematic in that imperatives to subjectification emerge and then, for example, personal self-actualization comes to play a central role in the sphere of work alongside waged work as a source of income?
B: Yes. There are definitely tendencies towards a certain self-exploitation, and these are also related to this kind of idea of subjectivity. Like, the idea that the work that you perform, waged work, is also supposed to be super meaningful on a personal, spiritual, and self-fulfillment level. We live in a society in which gainful employment does not even necessarily just have a life-sustaining function; it also has a deeper one, which in many ways is really amazing. But this also leads to problems. To moments when boundaries dissolve in a certain way; or to work no longer being adequately paid, or being paid via a kind of symbolic capital with a value for the worker that is often uncertain and volatile. The disappearance of solidarity is another issue, a result of the lone-warrior spirit I just mentioned. I definitely see a connection between these phenomena and the idea of art or the artist-subject as understood in a popular sense—and not just in the fully nuanced, academic sense, where there has obviously been a highly diverse range of thinking for decades now. But I’ve also come across many straight-up problematic things through very personal experiences, through my own artistic work and reflecting on my own positions.
I: What things specifically? Something like the artist as the inaugurator of liberalization of the labor economy, for example?
B: That would be one example. If you want to motivate people to work at a high level, then the best thing is to mobilize them as complete, complex personalities. And when people aren’t motivated by “external” incentives anymore—by accumulating money and status, for example—they take on their responsibilities with full energy, because they really feel those responsibilities to be important. And this can lead to the entire potential of those people being tapped into—to them being capitalized on, in the sense of financial capital.
I: We’re already in the thick of what was going to be my third thesis: that you need gainful employment for your artistic work. So on the one hand this means that in your work, you take a sociological view of the entanglements of creativity, creative economies, and labor economies. But then your own gainful employment does also inform your artistic work, I’d say. Maybe in as far as you interrogate the embeddedness in economic processes outside your artistic work, and maybe also this ideal of the self-actualizing artist and the extent to which this image has been transposed into a neoliberal logic of value-creation, in order to initiate motivational processes. I can imagine this all as having arisen from your own experiences of work.
B: It actually didn’t, it was more from sociological literature. When I was a student I noticed that many demands—professional, artistic, personal—are entangled in the art profession in a super strange way, and in an interpersonal way too. And I noticed that was already starting to create small dissonances. By total coincidence, I ended up in a Juliane Rebentisch seminar that was really focused on this. I’m actually a very political person, so I’m extremely interested in politics and regularly read a fair amount about it. But that had never played a role in my artistic work, until at some point, as a student, I asked myself if this was normal (laughs), or if it wasn’t actually kind of strange. And then there was this moment where a kind of meta-politicization of my own role occurred, when I suddenly reflected on myself and my work within its wider social context. This entire sociological reflection on my own existence and work suddenly became super important.
I: If you compare your two jobs, one where you’re employed doing press reviews, bundling, compressing, and presenting discourse for consumption, and then on the other hand the art, could it then be said that waged work strongly informs your artistic work in that the discursivity in the artistic work doesn’t happen in any strongly defined way and instead comes in from the outside?
B: That’s maybe almost a kind of compensatory relationship. I’m super interested in art discourse, or at least in those discourses that are connected to social politics. I’m especially interested in the less specialist and more popular engagement with art/culture and the entire politics that go along with it. The press review is one way for me to get into this and make it productive again. But this isn’t something that has to be immediately fed back into my art.
I: So you see this service you provide, that you read these texts and condense them and present them twice a month as a press review, you see that as being explicitly not a part of your artistic project?
B: Yes, for sure. I see it more as a service (laughs). There are very pragmatic decisions that I make based on very comprehensible criteria for choosing specific things. I don’t really see it as creative, I’ve got to say. I also don’t think it’s necessary to see it as somehow especially creative.
I: And you don’t have to, I don’t think. But to me it seems to be a key part your practice, which shows an interest in macro-social phenomena. This sort of work obviously isn’t typical to the ivory tower. But yours seems instead to be more of a basic interest, which is then presented in a more nuanced way in your performance of a service. That’s why I ask whether you make a hard distinction here. But I understand how that could be rejected.
B: In the works produced recently, there is a lot of material that is almost completely free of any kind of basic interest in sociology or society. All the tooth works, for example. There’s really a pure pleasure in particular aesthetics and also in the intention to create a certain kind of uncomfortable feeling. There’s actually relatively little reference made back to particular discourses, at least intentionally. Links can be made, obviously: white teeth, the white cube, there are obviously particular social implications. Whether you can read the economic prosperity of a person from their teeth, for example, all these kinds of things. Cleanliness and connected ideas of how the white cube is constituted as an exhibition space. How to exclude external influences, the idea of contamination—both of these questions crop up in these new works. But their connections to social discourses are fairly loose. And that’s something that’s actually a lot of fun, too.
I: It’s super frustrating that you took away my fourth thesis, according to which your work has just entered a new phase in which you rephrase and reassemble the inventory of forms and techniques that you have built for yourself as quasi-rhetorical instruments. So my question would have been if you, or rather your art, are currently receding from discursivity a little. Exactly as you described it just now.
I: Maybe this happens, or can happen, when discursivity forms a part of your waged work. But let’s stick with these new works that you showed at Petra Rinck in late 2020. What is the origin of this self-imposed restriction to panel paintings?
B: The panel painting is just a traditional form of art presentation, and I like working with formats that seem like a matter of course. And since a painting on a wall is one of the most conventional formats I can imagine, it was also a very pragmatic decision. Because it makes it possible for me to experiment with basic forms of presentation. So many possibilities are opened up, like how you deal with frames. The fact is that this format is clearly an art-philosophical classic, and it interests me because of that. That the painting seems two-dimensional but is always also sculptural. What do you actually do with the edge or side of a painting? How do you deal with that? And what does the way you deal with it say, and so forth. There are a lot of possibilities that emerge from this for me, and I like working with them. It’s fairly flat (laughs), the painting, but it’s not just two-dimensional. And within this small, sculptural space of latitude, where three-dimensionality plays a kind of role, but not an elevated, vulgar role like in an installation or statue or sculpture, you can work with these kinds of questions. On a relatively subtle level. You can always negotiate through the back door, so to speak, without it becoming a massive issue. That’s why I like the panel painting, as one of the most conventional media I can think of.
I: I noted down this weird buzz word painting beside itself in connection with you. Would you go along with that or is more a case of painting painting for you? Given that the discursive material that the elements bring along with them isn’t present anymore and the paintings function even without an external anchor.
B: Hmm, I probably wouldn’t go along with that. I have to add that for a while I really got involved with meta-painting and all the classics. Back then, the thing I found coolest was Robert Ryman’s work, so a kind of painting that focuses on the basic issue of its own material conditions, but in a very poetic and playful manner. So there’s a painting, there’s paint on it, then there’s a signature, then a painting has to be attached to the wall. Every brushstroke in and of itself entails a decision and this very decision is made into a point of focus, and in such a deliberate way. I found it strangely minimal, self-referential, and poetic all at the same time. Or that white isn’t always the lightest color, for example, and that there are particular material conditions that determine this. Another example: we paint on an aluminum surface, and when the light changes, the white is sometimes darker than the reflection on the metal beside it. These are very poetic but also totally analytic moments. I found this combination extremely impressive, mind-blowing even, and that’s a kind of basic reference as to how I deal with aesthetic resources. So playful and analytic at the same time, yes.
I: So you are a painter, to go back to where we started.
B: (laughs) I’d say I’ve taken an incredible number of aesthetic strategies from painting, or learned to appreciate them, and then tried to integrate them into my digital practice. We spend an amazing amount of time dealing with digital images. But the digital image has a fundamental problem, and that is its very disembodiedness, the hiding of the means of production. This is obviously something long familiar from photographic images. The way digital images are produced now, they’re prints or presentations on a monitor with no materiality of their own, or simply a materiality that isn’t kept in mind. I think this is a fundamental philosophical problem in media communication across the world, and it’s an issue I’ve been working with for a long time. That’s one of the reasons I switched over to using laid paper as a surface about ten years ago—the roughness of the surface and its organic structure give the works a “body” and a strong tactile appeal.
I: What would you say to this ad-hoc thesis: what you just said is a good summary of your artistic practice. The digital image obfuscates the production process. And why does it obfuscate it? Because it’s partially problematic, exploitative, or self-exploitative. So maybe these two complexes are related, painting on the one hand and work seen from a sociological perspective on the other. Ok, so I’m thinking out loud right now.
B: This thesis is a bit too dramatic for me (laughs).
I: I was struck by a repetition in the new works, in that you again show yourself as a comic figure, like you’ve done in the past—as Clippy, for example, that useless assistant tool created by Microsoft. Or as a shrunken-head monster. It’s obviously striking that you work with a lot of self-portraits, but why do you choose to present yourself as a buffoon?
B: Hmm, good question. When you make yourself kind of absurd as a protagonist, I essentially find that to be a relatable approach. Not taking yourself so seriously as an author, that’s maybe a reflection of my overall attitude, as I find authorship in the sense of a personal production of things to be fairly suspect in general. I’m aware that there’s a huge number of influences that shape my work. And as I said before, coincidences are no problem for me, they’re a key productive part of my work. And that might also reflect something of my presence as their author. Honestly, I’ve never thought about that, but it seems somehow plausible to me that in this ludicrous figure of the creating person (laughs) there’s a lot of freedom. But as a conscious vulnerability. I certainly don’t present as authoritarian. In the end, someone’s work is nothing more than an assertion. That’s always the thing I found coolest about art: everyone just asserts all the time and it just depends on who makes the coolest, most exaggerated, strangest, most audacious, and nevertheless most plausible assertion—and for that exact reason, authority in the classic sense doesn’t count for anything. For me that was always a liberating moment in art. So I present myself as an author in all sorts of weird, ridiculous poses, so that I can question my position.
I: But maybe also be mindful of revealing problematic implications of a liberal understanding of the artist, who serves as the inaugurator of deregulation within the world of labor. Is a kind of ridiculousness for you the only way for you to anchor yourself in something like making art, then?
B: Let’s just say I’m a participant observer in this whole circus. Making art is problematic and grotesque in so many ways, not least because of these entanglements you have to work within. My basic feeling is one of ambivalence; there are so many things that I think are meaningful and amazing about the form of existence I lead, but there are an incredible number of its aspects that I find dubious. I can’t separate all these positive and negative aspects, because they somehow all belong together for me. I’m not saying this is a productive approach, it’s just my honest approach. This arena isn’t really one in which I can take sides. I believe, or hope, that my works take both this involvement and this moral dilemma seriously, and that they don’t try to dispel them or to conduct any evasive maneuvers. And that this can lead to results that are super problematic, but simultaneously full of insight, as they don’t attempt to demonstrate that which you generally already know. Instead, they formulate honest questions. In my work, there’s always a fundamental doubt as to whether I can actually cast my lot with a particular side, and even about the idea of whether that very thing could be a quality. An artistic or philosophical quality, at least, I’m not speaking about a political quality or anything. There’s a clear difference there for me. Art shows how the world could be, not how it should be. In my opinion, this is its really specific potential.