13 questions for Constantin Hartenstein by Clemens Wilhelm
What are the tourists doing in your video KEYSTONE? What do their pictures mean? How do you read their pictures? Are tourists and artists related?
Tourism is migration. As a tourist, you leave your familiar environment to explore foreign spaces. It has a huge impact on a country’s economy and therefore can be seen as a possible visualization of a national flow of commodities. In taking a picture of a sight, tourists confirm their actual existence at one specific place in time; a representation of reality, flattened and framed as a two-dimensional reproduction of reality which, due to its numerous digital duplicates, might eventually not have any value at all. At this point, the touristic event loses importance rapidly until new territories draw their attention; an escape from reality or a different reality that wants to replace the old one, perhaps just for a little bit of time. The tourists in KEYSTONE perform and become actors on a stage: they embody the symbolic value of the Statue of Liberty through performing gestures and staging small scenes in front of it. I question whether or not this process brings about national identification through erasing the most prominent part of the picture – the statue itself. In order to make this work, I had to first become a tourist myself.
What happened when you first showed KEYSTONE in the US? How would you describe the reactions?
During a studio visit, I was asked by the German Cultural Attache Jakob von Wagner to present my works at the German Consulate in New York in September 2012. The work was made specifically for this exhibition after I visited the site. For KEYSTONE, I chose a pre-installed flatscreen in the lobby which would normally play „Deutsche Welle“ in a continuous loop during opening hours – so that the „DW“ logo had already been burnt in the screen. I wanted to manipulate reality and make the video appear as if it could be part of the actual news program. I remember that a woman, not knowing that I was responsible for the video, asked me at the exhibition opening: „Did that really happen? Where is the statue?“ I caused confusion. That was a big compliment.
Is liberty invisible? Is liberty under construction? Has it been destroyed? Or has it been removed? Your video suggests all of these readings, which one do you prefer?
Liberty is definitely under construction. We shape our society according to principles of freedom, justice, equality, peace, but significant social inequities and injustices continue to exist. Words like freedom and equality then become empty phrases; what we really need is art that ignites discussion to overcome injustice. Action. Artists taking risks. When I first arrived in New York, I was shocked by the turbo-capitalistic environment, the principles some people live by. I talked to people from different social classes, from diamond trader to coat check; collecting different points of views about understandings of liberty. Consequently, everyone agreed on this: liberty is only a concept, a theory that needs to be questioned and activated; an ideology that can be misused as propaganda.
It seems that your work often tackles the images of consumerism and unravels the superficiality of the products and people who make up these corporate-ruled societies. What is wrong with the images and people today?
All images are wrong. There is no way out of the dilemma of representation as the means of production of an image and their limits are abundantly inherent in the artistic process. Light and shadow, materiality and time – that’s it. I decided to create new images working with and against the instrument of the documentary. I try to create an impossible image that establishes a doubled reality; and to utilize the visual language of the surrounding world by putting my own twist on it.
Who is your audience? Is it possible to make „work for everybody“? What do people praise and criticise most about your work?
My audience is definitely to be found in the institutional art world: gallery visitors, curators, programmers, film festival organizers, collectors. In fact, the art world is made up of real people and overlaps with other audiences. I try to make my work as accessible as possible, not hiding behind pre-formulated phrases or creating work that is unnecessarily cryptic. As a video artist, my medium of choice might be criticized because the possibility of reproduction is still seen as a threat to the originality of the artwork. I hope we have arrived at acknowledging video art as a medium comparable to photography: you can make editions and there is an original (file). I make editions with artist’s proofs to show my works at film festivals. I strive to simplify and minimalize form; pouring the more complex thoughts into a simpler and sharper vessel. This might come across like a slap in the face sometimes, albeit a subtle one. Those who say my works are humorous are only those who share my rather dark sense of humor.
Which part of the art world interests you the most? The market, academia, the galleries, the off-spaces, or the festivals?
A mixture of all of the above.
What did you learn in art school? What was the biggest lesson? Should there be more or less art schools?
When I entered art school, I was completely new to the field and had no clue what to expect. I think I was behaving like an angry teenager who was thrown in jail. After some time, I realized the boot camp qualities of art school and took in as much as I could. It’s also a space where you can exchange your thoughts with like-minded peers. I’ve always felt like a weirdo but when I enrolled in art school, people were even crazier than I was. I enjoyed every minute of it, and support the idea of having more art schools in this world. More art schools would also mean establishing better conditions and more possibilities for artists coming out of art schools.
Should artists be able to talk about their work? Can you define what success in art is for you?
Artists should either be complete cuckoos in an interesting way (my favorite example in history here is Salvador Dalì who would appear at his own lecture wearing only briefs and dragging along two goats on a leash), be extremely articulate about their works (which implies the danger of being extremely boring as well) or just let their work speak for itself. You are the artist-you and only you made the work. It says a lot about your process to be able to take advantage of a conversation your artwork has instigated by providing additional information or anecdotes significant to the work. It’s a performance to talk about your work. And some artists are good performers, while others are not (which doesn’t make them uninteresting artists). Mostly, you cannot always stand next to your work, so it must speak to the viewer without your presence. It’s a dialogue. My biggest success is when this dialogue actually occurs.
What makes video different from other media in art? What is its greatest advantage? Why do you use it?
Video art has a long, rich history and isn’t by any means a new medium. The most significant feature of video art is the fact that a video camera produces 25 images per second, while a painter might only create 10 per month. If he or she is ambitious, that is. As radical as this may sound, it is just a general simplification of the possibilities to use moving images as your artistic medium of choice. The inscriptions of visual culture, contemporary moving image perception, the time factor, ubiquitous screens, composing cinematic experience – it all relates, intertwines, formally and substantially. I use video to expand space, to represent space differently, making assumptions about space and architectural predomination – and most recently I incorporate video projections in larger installations as one component of the overall work.
What is more interesting? Making work or showing work?
Making work is showing work to me. Both equally exciting.
What should a video artist avoid when making work? What bothers you most when you watch other artists‘ work?
From experience, I’d say one should avoid pretending that you can make everything by yourself. Just for the sake of staying healthy. I’ve always wanted to have full control over all the different steps of my process and practice, but I also realized that it was okay to give tasks away to others who are experts in their own technical fields. I don’t believe an artist has to play 10 roles at once, but I do think that a good artist needs to understand his artistic process fully and give critical feedback to the different departments working on the project. In the end, filmmaking is a team effort.
What bothers me sometimes is that conceptually well-thought-out ideas don’t find an equivalently strong visual realization which could eventually make the work much stronger, and would have taken only minimal effort for the artist. I am a sucker for aesthetics supporting the conceptual idea.
You moved to New York from Berlin recently. What is the difference between these two cities for a young artist?
The struggle. It seems that New York is made for people diagnosed with ADD, chronic sleep deprivation, workaholic syndrome and addiction to overstimulation and Diet Coke. Some work best under stress. Everything here seems to be an obstacle. There is no real nature. It is the quintessential voracious giant. For myself, born and raised in the countryside, I am fueled by megacities, I like the excitement and believe that New York brings out the extreme in you – just because there is no lukewarm here. You’re either hot or cold. When I was still in Berlin, I felt so comfortably calm and unexcited. That feeling could have gone on forever. What I really need as a young artist, though, is the constant struggle to make interesting work. I cannot make compelling work when I am totally happy and content. So for now, New York makes total sense because it pushes my limits.
Where do you see video art in 10 years? What status will it have in the art world? How and where will it be presented?
I hope video art, as an innovative medium, will escape its predetermined forms and break free from conventional presentation. There are a million new possibilities to be explored by making full use of moving images. I am looking forward to experiencing new hybrids in conjunction with the development of new technology. Video art’s status in the art world will not change much I assume – it has its place, and it also won’t replace the painting itself. It is definitely a collectible; and the number of collectors grows. Our familiarity with screens will help to enhance its perception, but with the medium also comes the challenge of archiving, preserving, and restoring. Challenges that soon need to be transformed into well-paid jobs to preserve the history of the medium and encourage young artists to use it. I am excited to see all the screens surrounding us being infected with art. And for them to lose their heavy materiality and rigid squarish form. In ten, twenty years, my children will find my Iphone in a dusty old box and say: „Dad, are you serious?“
Interview: Clemens Wilhelm, March 2014
Constantin Hartenstein (*1982) is a video and installation artist from Berlin based in New York.
He holds two M.F.A. degrees with honors from UdK Berlin and HBK Braunschweig (post graduate studies with Candice Breitz). Hartenstein participated in several artist-in-residency programs such as Triangle Arts NYC, Flux Factory NYC, GCAC Santa Ana and Künstlerdorf Schöppingen. He has been the recipient of numerous awards and grants, including the IFA Künstlerkontakte grant (I SEE International Video Art Festival) and the KRAFT Prize for New Media in 2013. His works have been shown internationally in institutions and festivals such as the Museum of the Moving Image NYC, New Orleans Film Festival, Goethe Institute NYC, Bundeskunsthalle Bonn, transmediale Berlin, and WRO Media Art Biennale Wroclaw.
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