Turin, Italy, Nov. 2013: Driant Zeneli is one of the most promising young artists in the contemporary art panorama. Born in Shkoder, Albania in 1983, he moved to Italy when he was eighteen. His video works tell people’s dreams, desires, hopes and failures, starting from performances and actions where chance plays an essential role. About two weeks ago at the Gallery of Modern and Contemporary Art in Turin, he presented his latest creation, Leave me alone, in the context of the show “Vitrine – Gente in strada (Passaggio pedonale)” curated by Anna Musini, on display until January 12. I met him a few days after the opening of the exhibition, and we had this exciting, inspiring conversation.
Driant Zeneli, Leave me Alone, 2013, eight channels video installation, colours, sound; courtesy the Artist.
Federico Florian: You have recently presented a new work at GAM in Turin, the video-installation Leave me alone. It is a puzzle of video-projections whose protagonists are people from the web community mocking Chris Crocker, the young American man who posted the amateur video Leave Britney Alone on YouTube in 2007. The installation poignantly describes the mass media hysteria and the schizophrenia of Internet society. In his The Society of the Spectacle (1967), Guy Debord states, “In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation.” I can find much of this in your new work. Could it be defined as a parody of the contemporary “society of the spectacle”?
Driant Zeneli: In the last few years I have been fascinated by the phenomenon of the viral video on the Internet and by its extreme performative nature. Today everybody has the possibility to be a “solo show man” and make profit, just putting his video on YouTube. Especially in the US, you can earn one dollar every 100 views. Major big international companies are involved in this system; they are interested in inserting their commercial adverts before the most popular videos. For many young people, most of them without jobs, that is a quick way to make money; they upload their personal spectacle on YouTube – like a sort of private theatre. Regarding Debord, I think his words can be related to our times as well as to every epoch. But with a difference: today everybody can stage his personal “spectacle” without any rule or constraint. Ours is no longer a society of the spectacle but rather a society of the performance. What really counts is the individual and personal show, which can become public one day.
FF: How did you get to the work?
DZ: Leave me alone originated as a reflection on the spread of viral videos on the web. I noticed that videos on YouTube need to contain three elements in order to become popular: surprise, sex and violence. In 2007 Chris Crocker recorded a video where he desperately cries and complains about the bad treatment given to the pop star Britney Spears. In only two days the video reached four million views. Crocker became an Internet celebrity, and the video has been imitated and parodied by countless YouTube users. I sent an e-mail to the users who best interpreted Chris Crocker’s performance, in which I congratulated and informed them that their videos would be part of a work of art. Then, I built a sort of dismantled cinematographic set in the GAM ground floor where the videos are placed. It looks like a choir of various voices overlapping, a parody transforming [into] a tragicomedy. I wanted to attack the space of the museum; I wanted to make it alive. Chris Crocker – as well as his impersonators – cries out “Leave me alone”, but what they really wish is that people continue to watch them. Their words sound like an invocation – please, keep on looking at me, because without your gaze I cannot live. Like a work of art, that lives through the other’s look.
Anyway my approach is not critical at all; I do not intend to condemn media or society. All means of communication are extensions of our desires. They just enhance wishes and attitudes that already exist in the world. The work also gave me the chance to reflect on the idea of community; I believe the web is the real community today. There you can find your “common”, even though you probably will never meet him in person.
Driant Zeneli, When i grow up i want to be an artist, video, 2007, color, sound; courtesy the Artist.
FF: What is the relationship between Leave me alone and your previous works?
DZ: The fundamental link between Leave me alone and the other works is the way I involve people in the work’s process. I asked my father to tell the story of his life while making me a portrait in the same way he used to portray the Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha, back when he worked as an official painter of the regime [When I grow up I Want to Be an Artist, 2007]. I asked a curator to perform as a tour guide of his own show [Grand Tour_ Italia, 2011], and I invited my gallerist and a curator to follow me on a journey in Albania to make some pictures in front of the new castles built in the last ten years [This is a Castle!, 2010]. The participants of my performances are never totally aware of what is going to happen – chance is quite important in my practice. But the way I invite people to take part in my actions is just a modality of my work, not the final aim; every video tells its own story and addresses different situations.
FF: In a sense, you act like a director behind the scenes. I think of Prova d’Orchestra [Orchestra Rehearsal, 2010], where a group of musicians is invited for dinner at the director’s place. In the video, you sit at the head of the table and gaze at the camera. You are the only one who knows that this is a performance.
DZ: Yes, in my works I do not simply leave the action to chance but I follow the chance. To me following chance is like being in a dark room and gradually getting used to looking into obscurity. Prova d’Orchestra is crucial in that sense; I conduct something that people are not aware of. Every time is a risk; I cannot know in advance how the action will proceed.
Driant Zeneli, Some say the moon is easy to touch..., video, 2011, 04'43''; Courtesy prometeogallery di Ida Pisani Milan.
FF: Dream and utopia characterize much of your work. In the video Some Say the Moon is Easy to Touch, displayed at the Venice Biennale in 2011, you throw yourself from a height of sixty meters trying to touch the moon – but the only thing you manage to reach is its reflection on a lake. Utopia is often connected to failure. What do you think is the aim of art?
DZ: I am interested in the road that leads to utopia, when it is still imbued with dreams. Someone once said that utopia is like the horizon, you take one step towards it and it moves [one] step away, you take twenty steps and it moves twenty steps away. As you walk, you never reach it. I am interested in the attempts to reach something – like trying to touch the moon, or fly and make a cloud [The Dream of Icarus Was to Make a Cloud, 2009], or place a piece of rainbow back in the sky [Those Who Tried to Put the Rainbow Back in the Sky, 2012] – but these ambitious attempts just give life to ephemeral gestures. Art should instill the will to attempt and try in people.
FF: And what about failure? In the statement of the Bankrupt Artist Lessons series you quote Samuel Beckett: "To be an artist is to fail, as no other dares to fail…"
DZ: When I decided to throw myself from a height of sixty meters by night in order to touch the moon’s reflection on the lake, some friends told me not to do this because it could be dangerous. I replied to them that to be an artist is quite [a bit] more dangerous than a leap into the void. It’s a continuous risk that often leads to failure. But failure is part of our life – it is necessary to change and renew the route of our existence. This idea is at the core of the Bankrupt Artist Lessons series; I ask professors in Italian academies and universities to give a lesson to their students about the lives of some unsuccessful artists. The aim of the work is making the concept of failure a specific school subject.
FF: Are you working on new projects?
DZ: Next time I’d like to try to throw myself from the moon to touch the Earth.
ArtSlant would like to thank Driant Zeneli for his assistance in making this interview possible.