Thinking About Strangers
Oscar Masotta’s transition from art criticism to art making was casual. In After Pop, We Dematerialize … Ana Longoni and Mariano Mestman quote him:
– [Perhaps because] in a country where everyone is talking about Happenings without having seen much, it was not a bad idea to try them.
Dora Garcia, artist and project leader of Segunda Vez, confirms:
– I think it was a very natural transition, yes, natural in a man who was incredibly curious and eager to try new things and belong to contemporaneity.
Garcia herself is not sure when she started to make art.
– I know when I became interested in art, very early on, in my teenage. I just thought it was passionate, and that artists were the best people in the world. I wanted to belong there, and the making of art was secondary. The important thing was to be part of the discussion, belong there, and have something to say.
How do you decide to devote your life, or parts of your life, to art – this energy draining, anxiety ridden, but also amusing and gratifying activity?
Nora Joung, fellow research assistant of the Segunda Vez project, and also an artist, long thought she would dedicate her life to music.
– I drew, like most kids. I got guidance from my mother who is a visual artist and who adores children. I drew a lot of still life and from art books: Gericault, Picasso … I never really stopped, like most kids do, around 12-13. But it wasn’t art. I was pursuing music, partly seriously, and thought that was what I was going to do.
Joung believes that her parents being artists probably affected her choice to become one. As she grew up not affluent, she sees making art as a luxury.
– When I started to study art at Kunstskolen i Bergen, their pedagogy promoted learning and process before making works. One shouldn’t think about “making art” but rather to “examine things” and “learn to see”. I first started to think that I was going to “be an artist” and “make art” during my masters, actually.
She hesitates for a moment when asked to elaborate on why do art at all.
– I am humanist enough to have sincere respect for the fact that people have an inherent desire to shape the materials around them, and use symbols to be understood. I am politically suspicious enough to see one of visual art’s responsibilities to analyze and manipulate the flow of images that we live under the yoke of. I make art because a visual artist can control the premises for how a work should be seen, understood, shared, distributed and managed.
Joung could just as well be describing why Masotta would venture from his role as art critic to an artist. Art critic Ana Finel Honingman asks in the Guardian whether all art critics should really be artists themselves, concluding that it has been fruitful for her. But although two sides of the same system, the success of transitioning from one to the other is not a given. Art critic Jerry Saltz was a former artist, and writes about why he drifted away from producing art:
“My work had something of the timeless beauty of older geometries and hermetic diagrams and illustration. The colors were pretty. But my art didn’t have the look and feel of my own time. Yet I meant it with all my heart. Which was another problem. At that dawn of our age of irony, I was totally sincere.”
Saltz found himself an anachronism in the New York art scene of the 1970s. His attraction to art was how it – and especially the neatness of the gigantic allegorical system of Dante’s The Divine Comedy – made sense in comparison to his chaotic childhood. His mother commit suicide when he was 10, and his father never spoke of her again, beating the young Saltz from time to time.
I had an average, Norwegian upbringing. My parents met as my mother was working as a subway driver and my father was selling the tickets. From there they worked their way up in the company, and ended up in respectively the IT and accountant department, wholly without education.
When I was born we lived in a high rise in one of the – on paper clever – housing projects of the 1960s Norwegian social democracy. As crime rates were increasing, my parents’ paychecks were as well, and when I was seven we moved to a quiet suburb of Lillestrøm, a city whose main attraction is its 10-minute train ride to the capital Oslo.
My path to art making was one of desire, loneliness, laziness and luck.
We never talked about art when I grew up. From school I learnt that some people loved Norway so much that they painted it in a mysterious and beautiful way, and that Picasso was rebelling against human anatomy, but my knowledge of contemporary art was close to non-existent. My parents read women’s and computer magazines, but somehow I was intensely drawn to the alphabet.
– You were always asking, which letter is that? And that? And that? my mother recalls.
When I was a teenager, her mantra – probably because of her own lack of education and feeling of missed opportunities – was: “Do well in school, and you can do whatever you want later”. So I studied. And I got impeccable grades. But once school ended, I didn’t want to do anything.
Finally, I decided I wanted to be a graphic designer and applied to the National Academy of Arts in Oslo. Of course I was rejected – I had no experience, other than some (truly terrible) painting. My best friend had a unique eye for color and composition, but I never had any ideas. My best friend also suddenly announced that she was moving to Denmark. Without letting me know she had applied for preliminary art school in the Danish countryside (today she is the graphic designer).
I was so disappointed that she didn’t tell me, and found myself alone in suburbia, without a plan. During the uneventful summer I stumbled upon the one-year art school Prosjektskolen in Oslo. I got in touch even though it was way past the application deadline, and was granted an interview. I brought a hopeless pile of “work”: things I had sewn (like a little, flowery purse), and some sketches. What they were thinking, I have no idea, but they let me start that fall, and I moved to a 6 square meter room in a shared apartment in Oslo with two strangers.
During my year at Prosjektskolen I was introduced to performance and installation art, and my brain started to boil. When I then found a book about Sophie Calle in the library it completely exploded: Did these things really exist?
Paired with the fact that I was new in a city where I was constantly in love, but no one loved me back, I realized what art was for: curing loneliness.
So I started to reach out to strangers in my art. I asked passersby if I could photograph their hands. I photographed myself in yoga poses on places in the city where my love interests had turned me down, and wrote small texts about it. For my graduation show at Prosjektskolen I exhibited close ups of my friend Tina’s body next to geometric shapes from the city. Bumps of the bus terminal in my hometown were juxtaposed to her closed fist. Texts about mathematic symbols accompanied the photos, and I remember the evaluation from the artist in charge of the assessment: “I would have liked this piece if you dropped the texts and photos, and rather made a massive geometrical sculpture in the middle of the room”. I quietly disagreed, but realize now she was actually posing the same question as I have tackled in my practice ever since: Strangers, why?
Sophie Calle allegedly started to make art to win her father’s approval. He was an art collector. In Suite Vénitienne, Sophie Calle’s first artist book, Calle tells the story about when she met a man at an opening after spotting him on the street earlier that day. He was going to Venice and Calle decided to follow him there. In the book she writes about her trip to Italy, tracing the man’s footsteps.
In Calle’s work there is a highly controlled intimacy, you could even call it staged. Still it effectively explores togetherness.
Sheila Heti, author of the novel How Should a Person Be, writes in The Believer Logger about another book of Calle’s, The Address Book: “Most books, most artworks, are so civilized, they hardly matter.” Calle found an address book on the street, and contacted people in it to portray the owner, and Heti focus on how the book forces the reader to take a stand: “The suspense and tension in The Address Book comes from seeing someone do something so outrageous, so morally suspect, so ethically questionable. Does the artist have the right to do whatever she wants if it adds to our understanding of who we are (which this book does)?”
Heti suggests that it is uncivilized to stalk. Yet it is a premise of sociality today. Through the Internet we can learn a massive amount about other people without them knowing. During the years I have noticed a decrease in the question “what have you done since last”, as if we are never sure if we have read it somewhere.
I am a stalker by default, and in my work I try to exaggerate this impulse. I rarely manage to read or listen to music in transit because I cannot tune out people’s conversations. Yesterday I learnt so much about the Star Wars universe that I now feel no need to watch the movies themselves.
I started to hang out on the Internet when I was eleven or twelve. A common activity to do with my friends was to impersonate older girls in chat rooms. We said we were from Oslo, googled “areas of Oslo” to find the exact location. Later I went on to have blogs of poetic character. Under pseudonyms I posted intriguing images I’d found online and fragments of texts. This was a time where typing in random words to search engines would generate obscure, blurry, mystic images of something else in total. It was also a time when using your real name online seemed suspicious. Since then the tables have turned, and it is rather seen as suspicious not to use your real name.
The way I see it, it is a fine line for when stalking becomes creepy. In primary school we were urged to stalk each other in a game called Secret Friend. We would draw a note with the name of a fellow classmate, and should be extra kind to that person for a week. At the end of the week we were to guess who had been our secret friends. As a grown-up this game still confounds me. Can actions be seen as «nice» when you are forced to perform them? Will the kindness sustain, when the game is over? What to do with affection we haven’t asked for?
In 1969, Vito Acconci followed people around New York, taking photographs of them. This work has been interpreted as a way of investigating the public language of our bodies, and interestingly: how our bodies are always subject to external forces that we may or may not be able to control. The work seems utterly relevant today, as we never know who might be watching. Just recently I discovered that there is a live web camera on top of the city hall in Lillestrøm. Online you have 24 hour access to the street by the train station, and although quite far up, I have recognized my mother coming home from work.
Of course, Acconci and Calles’s stalking is substantially different from a creepy person following an interest. Their intention is to produce art, an image, and a comment on intimacy. Their behavior is not an example for everyone to follow, but this is not art’s purpose. Perhaps we could see their work as thinking about looking at others, also violently explored in Masotta’s performance Para inducir el espíritu de la imagen, where the audience was faced with a row of (actors posing as) workers on a stage, along with an intense electronic sound, for the duration of an hour.
In Elemente des Zwischenmänschlichen, Austrian-born Israeli Jewish philosopher Martin Buber points to the interhuman as a dimension in our existence that we are taking so much for granted that we have not yet really pinpointed its character. In their own ways, Suite Vénitienne, Following Piece and Para inducir el espíritu de la imagen explore this exact dimension.
Buber goes on to point out that there are two sides to our existence: how we are and how we want to be seen. This has renewed actuality in a time where self-representation and devouring of other people’s lives is an everyday activity. And perhaps the moral questions to extract, both from Acconci’s performance and Calle’s book, should concern how one person is meeting another at a current moment in time.
Their works can also shed light on a modern loneliness. In The Lonely City, Olivia Laing writes: “… the lonelier a person gets, the less adept they become at navigating social currents”. But social currents change, and what we have now is a situation where a lot of lonely people are constantly connected, birthing new interhuman settings and correspondence. This is why looking at, listening to and thinking about strangers is so intriguing. And why it needs to be addressed.
Played at numerous weddings, The Police’s Every Breath You Take is conceived as a love song. Sting has said he was perplexed by how many people think the song is more positive than it is. He sees it as a song about the obsession with a lost lover, and the jealousy and surveillance that follow. It is played more than 9 million times on radio, and maybe this dual understanding says something about our current approach to other people’s lives.
Every breath you take/Every move you make/Every bond you break/Every step you take/I’ll be watching you.
 Listen Here Now! Argentine Art of the 1960s: Writings of the Avant-Garde, (The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2004), p. 162.
 Olivia Laing, The Lonely City (Canongate, 2016), p. 28.