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2017 – Bangkok
2016 – Porto
2015 – Malmö

Christian Andersson was born in 1973, he lives in Malmö. Through his installations, images, and recently, his videos, he dwells into the wide cultural maelstrom that surrounds us in order to shake our beliefs in the nature of reality. This exchange addresses his current research and his creative process, with a good deal of science-fiction all over it.

"The World is Rudderless" — conversation avec Christian Andersson

by Annabel Rioux

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Annabel Rioux — What are you working on at the moment ?

Christian Andersson — I’m preparing for my exhibition at Kunstmuseum Thun in Switzerland that opens in June. It will consist of a selection of older works together with a new video and a set of newly produced sculptures. I’m currently drawing the storyboard for the video, preparing for the parts that will be a frame-by-frame animation.

The autumn/winter was a hectic and quite shocking period for me: on the 1st of September my basement studio and storage got flooded and I lost a lot of books, material and notes, as well as a drawing project I was working on for Cristina Guerra Contemporary Art in Lisbon. About 40 original drawings were lost and we had to cancel the show. Since my studio really is a physical extension of my mind, it was a nerve-wrecking event, but now I’m back on track.

A. R. — Let’s talk about the way you work and how you deal with chaos; you once quoted Alan Moore to me: “Conspiracy theorists actually believe in a conspiracy because that is more comforting. The truth of the world is that it is chaotic. The truth is that it is not the Jewish banking conspiracy or the grey aliens or the twelve-foot reptiloids from another dimension that are in control. The truth is far more frightening: Nobody is in control. The world is rudderless.”1
Most of your work is about taking reassuring icons of a world overwhelmed by cultural artifacts to discreetly but firmly crack them open, to convert them into clues of this underlying chaos. But you work quite in the opposite way: nothing is left to chance. Have you ever considered actually injecting chaos and loss of control in your way of producing art?

C. A. — Not really, at least not if we talk about the final appearance of my works. I’d like to see my works as flawless membranes, stretched to the limit, making them perfect surfaces for projecting different stories onto them, but also being transparent enough to provide a glimpse of what’s resting behind that thin shield. In a way you could possibly relate my works to that false comfort given by an absurd conspiracy theory. Just as many of these theories, my works often have an Achilles’ heal ready to reveal them as fake or dubious. That risk is only one step away, and I like that. The ambiguity towards the seemingly perfect surface has always interested me, because a surface is only a stratum, with something else hidden under it. Like Stendhal puts it: "The promise of beauty is the promise of happiness". I’m interested in that promise, of what it really means. Maybe this is an effect of growing up in a place like Sweden in the 70’s and 80’s. On the surface everything was perfect, but of course it wasn’t. I remember when a Russian submarine stranded on the Swedish east coast archipelago in 1981. A threat literally submerged from the deep and made itself visible. That was the first time I sensed a bigger kind of fear, a more abstract one. Only 5 years later the Swedish prime minister got murdered on the streets of Stockholm, a crime still unresolved. That event is often referred to as the “end of innocence” in Sweden. I think this shift from Sweden as an idealized, idyllic bubble into a real place shaped my generation a lot.
To get back to your question: The chaos in my work lies in the process, but it’s all in my head and in my notebooks. When these stories finally take a physical shape I want them to still have the vibration of chaos in them, but more as a notion of suspense. Their bodies are made to look trustworthy, as a credible alternative to truths and facts generally surrounding you. In the end it’s all a matter of the faith of the viewer, how deep down the rabbit hole you want to follow these bodies.

A. R. — Does the issue of control and chaos have a political resonance for you? Your work is not political in a literal way, but I feel like it addresses how humans shape the world we live in, and how we crave for comforting discourses while at the same time being the most destructive force on the planet.

C. A. — Even if my works don’t have an outspoken political agenda I’m interested in them as scanners of the political climate surrounding them. I often see my works as antennas, steadily and patiently transmitting a code once embedded into their structure. All cultural language sooner or later becomes a sign of its time, and that is as important as it is inevitable. The difficulty is of course how to stay as personal and open-minded as possible in this process of imagination and creativity when shaping this code being transmitted, and this is where control and politics might emerge as a threat. Since control could never fully be achieved, we depend on the idea of control, and that’s when things often get ugly, because this idea of control is of course not an absolute value, it can be corrupted and twisted to fit ones purposes.
Ironically enough, The Western World is very eager to create concepts that shake our foundations and beliefs. Freud talked about three “ego-smashing events”2 in recent human history: The first one was Copernicus when he depraved humanity of the position in being the center of the universe. Secondly it was Darwin who robbed man of his peculiar privilege of having been specially created (by God) and relegated him to a descent from the animal world. The third punch is thrown by Freud himself when he claimed that due to our unconscious we’re not even in control of ourselves. In today’s modern science this game of plunging into waters where humans are yet not in control (perhaps only for the sole reason to be able to reinstate control again, in an updated version) is considered a crucial investigation. Hence we’re constantly creating an ongoing paradox for ourselves where we seek control and progress at the same time.
I’m a believer in the raw force of imagination and the arts based on that imagination. The idea of a freethinking mind is based on loosing control and this includes both the maker and the viewer. It’s all about finding a frequency where the spectator can pick up hers or his version of the signals sent by the artist. The idea of free speech is also a lot about free receiving. In my opinion society has a great responsibility in providing a climate where the eyes, ears and minds of people are allowed to be as open as the thoughts of the artists providing the signals.

A. R. — In 2011 your exhibition From Lucy with Love at the Moderna Museet in Malmö was built like a "dreamscape from a surrealist painting"4. Even though your practice can’t be reduced to surrealism as a style or a movement, it seems to me that you share with surrealist artists their interest for the mysteries of the human mind, and the desire to uncover another layer of reality beyond the surface of our everyday environment.
What is your relationship to the surrealist legacy? How do you think it can be relevant in the early 21st century?

C. A. — In my upcoming exhibition I am returning once again to a trope I’ve been using a lot as a platform for works and investigations – the Barcelona pavilion by Mies van der Rohe. It was originally constructed in 1929 as the German pavilion for the world fair, and after that it was dissembled, it existed only as a ghost, through a set of carefully selected black and white photographs. In 1986 a copy was built, at the exact same location as the original pavilion. This copy-paste history has interested me a lot since I think it could act as a metaphor for our attitude in trying to control history, or even time. The building in itself is also interesting for its open architecture, where you can keep track of your own movements as well as others’ in almost every part. This is a new attitude we see in architecture in the beginning of the 30’s, when modernism starts to become high fashion. At the same time as architecture prepares to get rid of dark corners and hiding places, we see the dawning of a world more and more defined, where Gertrude Stein was picking apart our language, Niels Bohr defined the atom and Freud suggested the dark corners of our lives were still there, hosted inside us. It’s the era of scrutinizing, and in the middle of this the surrealists emerge, claiming another landscape, a hidden, chaotic one that wasn’t so easily defined. They planted the idea that the mind was an endless space and our dreams were the peepholes to that place. I find this attitude amazing even if I don’t always agree with the surrealist practice in terms of style and ego. What I do agree with, especially in present times, is the firm trust in a mysterious, hidden aspect of life. In times where we are constantly monitored, dreamscapes might be our last resort not subdued to surveillance. And here we reach the trope of control again, because in dreams we can roam freely and experience the limitless, but we can’t control them. The design of our dreams still remains a mystery, even to the dreamer. For me it serves as a reminder of the immense magnitude of the mind.
I might mention that one major inspiration and influence when putting together the exhibition at Kunstmuseum Thun is a painting by Georgio De Chirico, Le cerveau de l’enfant (1914) that I saw at a very young age at Moderna Museet in Stockholm. I wanted to make an effort in creating a piece with a similar metaphysical feeling of lucid dreaming and for the show I am making a new video where I trace the dream of a programmed mind being set free, the mind of an artificial intelligence. This might again awake questions about control and evolution: we know we can’t design our own dreams, but what would the dreams of our creation look like? Could an unconscious mind be born from a set of circuits based on our conscious, rational programming?

A. R. — This idea of an man-made mind who is able to dream, to become unpredictable in a way, is explored in transhumanism literature, and dates back as far as the myth of Prometheus (not to mention Philip K. Dick’s cult novel "Do androids dream of electric sheep?"). In 1956 the philosopher Günther Anders coined the term "Promethean gap"3 to describe the fact that humanity is overrun by its own technological progress and thus unable to consider either mentally or emotionally its huge consequences on the world. In a way, transhumanism aims at closing this gap by enhancing humans. Are you seduced by this potential future?

C. A. — I’m not really seduced by the ideas of transhumanism per se, but it’s definitely an interesting trope. I’ve always been fascinated by the tri-chotomy of mind/body/machine and how it’s been portrayed in fiction. In my video we observe the moment where a mind makes the decision to leave the beaten track to find an alternative path. This is again a trope of control versus the loss of the same, only in this case the program that manages to overrun its set rules unleashes a loss of power that reverberates further, affecting also the “programmers”. This part in my video can be interpreted as a matter-of-fact comment on the discourse of A.I, the Promethenan Gap or even the Transhumanism movement, but I also choose to use it as a more general metaphor for cultural mutation: it might evoke whether our first impulse is to hold on to familiar states of form and content or if we choose to accept this evolutionary step for what it is. This thin membrane between two polarized states interests me, the moment when a mind struggles to define a new impulse.

In robotics the term The Uncanny Valley describes a possible state of revulsion when exposed to an representation that looks almost, but not exactly, like natural beings. Would we react the same way when exposed to an intelligence that would appear to be almost, but not exactly, // a human intelligence? And maybe the main question is if we would be able to recognize the difference at all. If we constructed this new intelligence based on our own, maybe facing it would be like looking into a diffused or cracked mirror; The face looking back at us would still appear to us as our own.

This kind of paranoia concerning who (or what) is real and what is a simulacra is the main theme in many of Philip K. Dick’s stories. However, in his short story The Electric Ant (1969), he takes this paranoia to an extreme level: Garson Poole wakes up after a car crash, only to realize he is in fact a robot, an electric ant. He tells his co-worker Sarah that she might not be real herself, just a “stimulus-factor” on his reality tape. Sarah finds this idea absurd, but while watching the robot shutting down, she realizes that Poole was right as she starts to become transparent, only to completely cease to exist moments later.
What Dick is illustrating here might be the extreme of dilemmas, when a man-made machine experiences a reality affecting people who think they are real but in fact are just codes, punch-holes, designed to support the programmed “reality” of the android. No Turing Test could sort this out, the layers of objective and subjective perceptions and intelligences are too many, all tangled up with each other. And maybe here we can fantasize about a fourth and final ego-smashing event in humankind: what if we aren’t real at all? Maybe an intelligence, in the beginning designed by us, now uses us as stimulus factors on its reality tape, only as a nostalgic reminder of its’ long gone creators that once brought it to life.

A. R. — You only recently started working with video, what made you want to use this technique? Are there artists working in this field that particularly interest you?

C. A. — I wanted to try video for a number of reasons: first of all I wanted to test how my ideas would turn out in another medium, if they would provide a similar narrative structure as my installations do. Secondly I wanted to test how it affected my other works, if having moving images connected to them would change the way people perceived my art as a whole. For a while now I’ve been preoccupied with the question of whether what I do is fiction or not, and making narrative structures with moving images felt like a way to add a clear notion of fiction to my art. It’s really about testing the sustainability of my works, to observe if they can hold when being stretched between a sense of fiction and references linked to our “real” world, and in the long term how that might affect these references.
When it comes to inspiration in moving images the main influence derives from film as such. I enjoy surrealist filmmakers like Cocteau and Buñuel a lot for their obsessions in creating overloaded enigmas of symbols and metaphors. I also gained a lot of inspiration from the 80’s and 90’s movies based on more contemporary obsessive themes, like in the films of Cronenberg and Lynch, but also names like Chris Marker and Peter Watkins have been important to me, mainly for their innovative narrative structures. Lately I’ve also been watching a lot of animations, like the works of Jan Svankmajer, Georges Schwizgebel and Ryan Larkin, just to mention a few.

A. R. — In your works, you often use icons borrowed to science, literature, history, design… but visual arts aren’t that frequent in the references you manipulate. Is it because you feel that all these other categories permeate the collective unconscious more deeply than art itself?

C. A. — Not really, it’s more that I feel that visual art is too close to me to use as a reference. I often find artworks or artists as inspiration for my practice but not so much as a source material when it comes to references. I want a certain level of common understanding concerning a reference I might use, and I feel these common grounds are often found outside visual art. I’m also more interested in adding fields to my art rather than to keep defining art as a concept or cultural language. This is important too, but it’s just not what interests me. I sometimes feel the art scene is a bit too self-referential which in my eyes makes it quite a claustrophobic space. My way of expanding this is to drag my interests in there and let them roam in a different environment for a while, as guests. You could say that I’m building a model, or drawing a map, where I expand streets and buildings, adding characters and plots. This blueprint is redrawn and tossed around constantly, but for each new version something sticks, gets to stay, as a permanent structure in this terrain. This blueprint or grid is what I use to try out different known “characters” in history, literature, science, etc. I let these characters run down my streets, lost and confused, to see where they finally settle down.

A. R. — You are one of the founding members of the art space Signal in Malmö. What made you want to create such a space? How did Malmö’s artistic landscape influence your practice (at the time, and now)?

C. A. — When we started Signal in 1997, we were four students, still at the Malmö Art Academy (which was founded only two years earlier). At that time the art scene in Malmö was very quiet and we all felt we deserved more, so we decided to take matter into our own hands and create a context where we could fit in and enjoy as young (soon to be) artists. We really didn’t know how to run an artspace so a lot was done by improvisation and through trial and error. We contacted artists we liked and simply asked them if they wanted to show in our space and surprisingly many agreed. The first year we organized something like 25 exhibitions and events and from this process we were educated in a very “hands-on” attitude compared to the rather theoretical approach at the Academy.
I think it’s fair to say that the life with Signal became my main influence a the time. I had the sense that the artworld was a constantly evolving organism, and I could tap into this organism through this vessel in little Malmö! For the first time ever I felt that I belonged to a bigger context and it was a truly exciting and fulfilling notion.
In 2001 I moved to Chicago for a year and after that I tried Stockholm for a couple of years, but in 2006 I moved back to Malmö. For me this town is small enough to have the benefits of being a bit outside of the bigger world (even if Malmö has changed a lot in the last 15 years and now is a very vibrant, diverse town), which enables me to concentrate, and some of my best friends and close colleagues live here too which provides me with the comfort of a cluster of people to meet on a regular basis.
The good thing with living in a small town is that you actually get the urge to go someplace else. When people ask me how it is to live in such a small town in such a small country I tell them that Malmö is a great place to leave and a great place to come back to.

Interview conducted by e-mail in January 2015.

Christian Andersson will be in residency at the Couvent des Récollets in Paris from October to December 2015.


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