PRINT Summer 1996

Rirkrit Tiravanija talks with Fischli & Weiss

Spending time looking for a tiny miracle at the end of the day, it suddenly all makes sense, the way things go. With Peter Fischli and David Weiss, the way things go is that they take time: not necessarily “actual” time, but possibly the contemplative relation one could have with time. Their most recent video work—accumulated footage from various trips, both planned and spontaneous, encompassing experiences ranging from daily activities to an event that might occur once in a blue moon—was a year and a half in the making. In their work the camera takes in a “handheld reality,” fragments of events within the parameters of the artists’ reach—encounters occurring during an afternoon drive, a day trip, or a journey across the continent.I arrived in Zurich to spend a couple of days (two and a half to be precise) with Peter and David as they prepared for their show “Peter Fischli and David Weiss: In a Restless World,” on view at: the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis until August 11. In addition to works of sculpture, film, and photography; the exhibition features their videos, shown for the first time since their debut at the Swiss Pavilion in the 1995 Venice Biennale. Dubbing all the tapes for the Walker exhibition will take 10 hours a day over a 12-day period. Between the taping and the work of preparing the rest of the show, Peter and David arranged for the three of us (and a friend) to take a guided tour of the “Hölloch” (hell hole), the largest cave in Europe and one of the biggest in the world. The fragment below is an excerpt from an attempt to conduct an interview in real time (comprising 15 hours of recording); as with reality, many things worked, and many failed, but in spending time with Peter Fischli and David Weiss, a small event can answer all the big questions. —RT

The taping begins in the car with David on the way from the airport to one of Fischli and Weiss’ studios. David and I discuss the idea for the interview and agree I will tape our conversation in real time (or close to real time)—that is, turning the recorder on and letting it go for the two and a half days I will be spending with them. David says that they haven’t done an interview in a while and that in the past it has never been quite satisfying.

DAVID WEISS: Did you go to the Biennale in Venice last year?

RIRKRIT TIRAVANIJA: No, I didn’t get to see the project.

DW: It’s quite similar to the idea of having the tape recorder running in real time during our conversation. Did you hear about it? It’s not exactly real time but it is close to real time.

RT: The exhibition in the U.S. will start at the Walker Art Center, in Minneapolis?

DW: Yes. We will show older works as well, though it is not quite a retrospective. Not everything we have made will be in the exhibition. At the Walker it’ll be shown in the room downstairs. Do you know this space? We’ll try to show the works in a mellow light or spotlit. We’ll have some works on the walls, of course, but we’ll also have two videos which will be projected. For the piece we did in Venice we’ll have ten TV monitors. A slide projection and a smaller piece with light, plus two sculptures. All in the dark!

RT: Like in the Hölloch. When you made the videos for the piece in Venice, was there a specific situation you went around trying to tape?

DW: Well, it took us about a year or a year and a half to make it all. It started with one video, shot on the road we’re driving on now, going back and forth, to and from the studio, in addition to footage shot of us in our studio. We took the bus. When we were asked to present a project in Venice, we felt there was more to this activity, more in reality, more in a place where there is no art. When the camera is on, you decide that this is a good situation. Like now [looking out the car window], there’s something special about this moment. Sometimes we would take small trips, sometimes together, sometimes alone, without any destination, just driving and going out in the woods. Perhaps we found something, or not, while driving around. Sometimes we called ahead and asked if we could come and visit. For instance, we went to this factory where they make things like yogurt and milk. Somehow, the footage didn’t turn out very well—it just looks like any other factory. So, in the end we didn’t use it for Venice. Of course, it was fun when we were in the middle of it, but it looked too much like an industrial film, so we decided we couldn’t use it. Altogether we had about 500 hours of videotape. Then we had to edit, just to take some things out—not to rearrange the sequences but to make some of it shorter.

RT: Does each segment have a specific running time?

DW: I think they’re from ten or fifteen minutes to two and a half, even three hours. One of the sequences is a train ride somewhere around Zurich in the winter. This is simply very beautiful. There isn’t much editing on this tape, but after three hours we had enough footage. In Venice we had 12 monitors in one room, so you wander around and you always see at least two to three monitors at the same time. Sometimes you could see five to six in the distance.

As we continue to drive through industrial parts of Zurich, I ask about Los Angeles, where David lived for a few years, and how he and Peter started working together.

DW: I lived in L.A. in 1979–81, about fifteen years ago.

RT: And this is around the time you started to work together?

DW: Yes, we made a series of photographs together here in Zurich. Then Peter came to L.A. and we made a short film, with rented costumes—

RT: The Rat and the Bear—

DW: We didn’t have money. We lived in Hollywood, we couldn’t act, and we didn’t have any actors. So we decided that we could hide in those costumes—of course, you can’t. Then we were invited back to Zurich and Peter and I made the exhibition with the clay figures. One show after another came, and I didn’t think I could live in L.A. any longer. Once you’ve lived in L.A. for a year or two, you come to a point where you have to decide, “Am I a visitor still or am I going to live here?” L.A. is the kind of place where you can become a “Californian,” because they don’t care there! I couldn’t just go to Italy and pretend to be an Italian!

We reach the studio, a modest-size room that once housed gas utility laborers who worked in the area. This is Fischli and Weiss’ “clean” studio, the one they use for their photography and video work. There we exchange greetings with Peter.

RT: You are dubbing?

PETER FISCHLI: This is the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction.

DW: For about half of this year we have watched on two screens everything we shot. It usually takes about two to three hours, but it’s nice to sit down and just watch this “everyday life,” what’s going on outside, useless things—

PF: It’s not real time, it is edited—

DW: But not rearranged.

PF: It’s a one-day trip which becomes an hour of film. We have long sequences in real time. It’s an important aspect that using or spending time is “something.” To spend time, to go to a place, to watch people, and then also to spend the time watching the video. It slows everything down a little bit.

DW: In editing we had to spend more time. Going through it again, you can’t speed up.

PF: In the final installation in Venice, we had the piece on 12 monitors. You really had to watch one tape after another. But in fact we really didn’t want this. Because we had a very large space, you couldn’t watch all the monitors at once but you could watch maybe two at the same time. When we were sitting here in the studio we could have something to drink and cigarettes to smoke. In Venice, the minimum comfort you could offer somebody was a glass of water and a chair—it is a little bit more than nothing.

DW: The water was a big success. Many people came for the water, and they may have even seen the show as well.

PF: The themes of the films we chose—you could describe them as an encyclopedia of personal interest. We just filmed things that we thought we would like to go and see—what everyone is doing, the whole day. It more or less breaks down into three sections: people at work, sport and fun activities, and nature and daydreaming. Some of the things were chosen in a passive way. Because David had to go to the dentist, I said, okay, I’ll come with you. It wasn’t an artistic decision. Other segments are of places we had been before and wanted to go back to. And others were about going without any kind of ideas beforehand. Like our trips to the Egelsee, a little lake where David and I have made a couple of films.

DW: Nothing happens there! Or close to nothing. It’s so cheap to make these videos; you don’t hesitate to shoot anything you see. If you see some kind of small or large animal or a farmer working, you can just sit there and watch him work.

RT: You each had a camera to shoot with?

PF: Yes, and for most of the videos, we were alone. David went somewhere, and I went to another place. But on some of the films, we made a special trip together. In the end we realized we had ended up with esthetically pleasing things—like “Oh . . . the light was so beautiful.” When you are taping so much, then something like a wonderful light can just happen. There’s a moment of marvel in it, because this is the other side of a conceptual work. The conceptual work would be, for example, an artist who is following a cat for the whole day. But when you have a beautiful image of a cat, and the cat looks really wonderful, it’s something marvelous. I like this moment, when you forget that an artist had thought of the idea to make a video about a cat, because it’s just a wonderful cat in the end. [Looking at footage of a rat in an animal hospital being operated on for a tumor.] These could be educational movies, but they are not because no one is explaining anything. So it’s wasting time, in another way. In the end you are not able to operate on your rat.

RT: It is like learning through observation. The viewer has to pay attention in order to learn something.

DW: The viewer is completely left alone; there is no explanation.

PF: It has this aspect of an encyclopedia, but it is not really an encyclopedia. An encyclopedia explains, and we don’t explain anything. In many ways the camera is observing us, what we’ve been taping for the past year and a half. The camera is also pointing back at us, in a way.

DW: With the camera you don’t force your way. You just wait there.

PF: The handheld camera is a very important aspect to the videos, because you have this effort of the body trying to keep the camera in place.

David drives me to visit the permanent installation, a little room that can be viewed through a small window from the street across from the Kunsthalle in Zurich.

RT: How do you feel when you watch the footage together at the end of the day? Do you have certain anticipations or expectations?

DW: First you’re excited, especially if you’ve made a good trip or had a good day—you look forward to seeing the footage. Sometimes you’re surprised at how bad the footage is, or that it was nothing special. In other cases you really have good moments.

We go to the red-light district to have dinner at a Thai restaurant; we’re early; so we go to the bar; and Peter is already there. We look over brochures for the guided tour of the Hölloch.

RT: Do the two of you have a lot of discussions about what you do and how it works?

PF: For the work in Venice we were always discussing how it worked as art. You can get lost because it has nothing to do with art in a certain way. But when you watch it, you can also see that there is an attitude of two artists within the piece of work. When you see this rat and his operation you are touched by what you see, by what it is in real life. For that reason we didn’t want it to look artistic or like an art video. The footage should have a “normal” quality. No special gimmicks with the color.

DW: Sometimes you reach normality on the level—

RT: The level of quality?

PF: Yes. Carefully, not too shaky. Just “the best we could do.”

RT: Do you feel this is a kind of attitude you have in all your works? When you are carving the polyurethane objects, in the end do they have to become normal?

DW: Yes. Taking pictures, for instance, one shouldn’t talk about the grains or the photographic style. Formal aspects should not be the content. Things should be in the middle of the frame, and the weather should be nice!

RT: Perhaps this is a balance of reality?

DW: Balance?

RT: Well, that the way it is made returns it to reality?

DW: It should never leave reality.

PF: With the [“Bilderansichten” (Monument), 1991] photographs something interesting happens. We took photographs of images of marvelous places. We were asked by a company if we would like to make art for their offices. So we thought it would be interesting to make these photographs for the hallways. We hung them all over the building, and they looked quite normal, like photographs and postcards or posters of wonderful places that the workers would have put up.

It didn’t look like art anymore but rather like the places they would have liked to travel.

DW: The only criticism from the workers was that the photographs were too small.

PF: So they can switch from art to life—back and forth. Most of the time they’re in real life. Only if we would take you or someone from the art world to see the photographs would you realize that this is about an attitude. But it doesn’t have to work on the level of art only.

RT: I am interested in this idea.

PF: It depends on the attitude. They can be on both sides. For sure, when things are handmade like sculpture, it is much clearer that they belong to a maker. David showed you the little room? We did other similar rooms. In the museum room in Frankfurt the objects look more realistic. In the room here in Zurich, you can see how some things are a little off. In the Frankfurt room, you look through a window and see this room, which seems to belong to a museum custodian. But it is also an illusion: you think you’re looking out of the museum—

DW: Out of the art world into a private space—

PF: But in fact it’s probably the most artificial thing in the whole museum. This switch is always very nice. Or it is the point of interest, it’s part of everything we do.

We all leave the bar and walk over to the restaurant.

DW: Shall we not work? Just eat?

RT: We should never work and only eat. [We have an excellent Thai dinner, but the restaurant/bar is too loud to continue with our topic, so we discuss our upcoming trip to the Hölloch.]

It’s late afternoon. We are driving back from spending the day in the Hölloch after a long discussion with the tour guide. I daydream about Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure while the guide talks about a young woman from the Alps who had appeared on television last night to talk about her newfound fame in pornography (she is a sensation).

DW: Do you think that you now know more about the Hölloch, or less? Because now you know how much you don’t know.

PF: But if you know how much you don’t know, you know more, in a way. Because you know that! That’s something! I also think the experience of physically feeling something is important. The corner we saw, less than 1 percent, lets us imagine the rest of the cave. Just to have someone tell you the cave is almost 170 kilometers long is too abstract.

We drive past the Swiss Army Knife factory and the outer parts of Schwyz. Peter puts on a tape of international-style easy-listening music. The sun is going down and there are lakes and mountains rising from the background. It’s a film, possibly.

RT: For your sculpture, do you just pick out objects that are lying around the studio? I mean, are you carving particular things from the studio which have personal references, like “here is my knife”—

DW: Yes. It comes down to that.

PF: Mostly things that would be around the studio—tools and objects we would need to make a carving—we carved. The working process itself is very close to what we are talking about. With these objects, we’re talking about “something else” in a way. Then we also realized that the tools we use around our studio are similar to the kinds of objects that museums and galleries use. These are the studio objects, but they are also objects in the cabinets in a gallery.

DW: This is a nice coincidence, because all the objects are known to everyone. Somehow everybody has had an experience with those objects. Sooner or later they need this kind of knife or glue or wallpaper. They are extremely common objects. Everybody knows how to paint walls.

PF: In the exhibition we had at Sonnabend [in New York], we went to the gallery ahead of time and took a close look in the cabinet and storage rooms to check and see what kinds of objects they contained. We brought many of them back to Zurich, where we chose some of them.

DW: The small room I showed you yesterday has traveled to England and to Germany, so we had to remake the milk bottle, because we didn’t want people to be surprised by looking at a Swiss milk bottle. It shouldn’t be exotic, it should be—

RT: Normal—

DW: Yes, as normal as possible—straightforward.

PF: The gallery told us that when the elevator doors opened and the visitors looked into the exhibition space, they thought that there was no show to visit. People thought that the objects belonged to real life, so they weren’t interesting to them.

RT: I like this idea of “spending time” we talked about earlier.

PF: Yes, it is very important.

DW: Perhaps there is even an aggressive aspect to the idea.

PF: We made one photograph in the series of balanced objects [“Stiller nachmittag” (Quiet afternoon) series, 1984–85] called Time Abused.

RT: Do you see this abuse of time as related to the notion of making art?

PF: I see it when you spend time with something. It is like the cave we were in today. We spent time in the cavities and holes.

DW: Well, it’s the basic question of the value of the time.

PF: It really depends on how much you can see in it, or how much you can take out of it. It is like Max [a man we met as we exited the Hölloch, whom our guide described as obsessed with spending time in the cave] spending forty years of his life in this cave. Max was bringing value to the cave, by spending so much time in it.

RT: You were talking about curiosity before and the way it drives humans to enter and explore places like the Hölloch. I was just thinking that in your works this idea of curiosity would create a space for spending some time. One has to look closer and spend time. Is that well-spent time?

PF: By spending time with something, even when you don’t have a relationship with it, something changes.

DW: Relationships can start, or even the knowledge that your lack of interest in “this” or “that” can cave in. For example, when you go around with the video camera you know exactly how much time you spend with something, and how long you are interested.

PF: When you spend time with something you can also have an experience which you get tired of after a while. You could get tired or you could want to spend more time.

DW: For me the main focus with the objects is that you “see something” that you also know is not there. Of course, it is there, but the chair is not a chair, the table is not a table. Or it’s not there as what we usually know about these objects. You can’t use them, because their functions are lost.

PF: It is just the surface of these things that you make believe is there.

DW: Perhaps it helps that we choose such low-key, low-value objects to carve because it helps underline the value of the object.

RT: So it’s like the “big questions” and the “small questions” are collapsed into one plane. “Small questions” asked at the right moment can become bigger than the “big questions.”

The next morning, David takes me to their other studio, in which they carve the polyurethane objects. David shows me an older piece of sculpture with holes (<em>Tier [Animal], 1985), as well as a tube/tunnel poly foam object in the basement. I look down one end and see the light from the other (David says, “It is curved slightly, just enough so you can’t see the other opening.”) We then drive to meet Peter at the video studio.</em>

DW: I am taking you in a very complicated way, so that you’ll have no idea how to find the studio anymore, so you’ll get lost.

RT: The secret formulas will be safe.

DW: I grew up in this neighborhood. See these buildings, the schools? They are such ugly buildings; they’re so “heavy.”

RT: Do you feel that L.A. is the exact opposite to this place?

DW: Yes.

We arrive at the studio parking lot. Inside, Peter is making dubs of videos. The equipment setup seems very improvised, but everything appears to be running.

PF: Hello, good morning. Had a good rest? Strange dreams?

RT: Yes. I was dreaming about falling backward.

DW: Falling backward?

RT: Yes, the whole night, in the cave. [<em>Looking at the video footage being dubbed.] Tunnels.</em>

DW: Yes. Tunnels.

PF: This is the footage in the Staumuer.

DW: A dam.

RT: Under the dam?

PF: This is on the way back, and there are two men who are controlling the dam. They have to go quite far up in the mountains, where tunnels have been constructed for the inspectors to use. They also have cable cars to go up to the dam.

DW: The inspectors just walk around in the dam—it’s hollow inside—and check to see if these extremely long steel rods hanging from the ceiling to the bottom are still in the correct position, to make sure that the dam is still in place. In some areas there’s a little bit of water dripping from the walls. They measure the time of the drips, how long it takes to make a liter, in order to calculate how much water is leaking in. There is a clock going. It must always remain the same or within a range.

RT: So if it changes drastically they better get out of there fast?

PF: We like to have scenes of tunnels or driving through tunnels in real time, because—

DW: Not all—

PF: No, but we have a lot of footage of driving through tunnels.

DW: I just showed Rirkrit the tube. He knows all about it.

RT: Then our trip to the cave has a strong relationship to your work.

PF: Yes.

DW: Or you could say it is not a completely different world—

PF: Or like you say—the cave is natural and this footage of traveling through the tunnel is man-made. Maybe this is the difference between one of our handmade cups, which is the artificial, man-made world, and the real cup, which is like the cave. Most of the video starts and ends with the car ride.

RT: This gives you the sense of the trip, if you watch it from beginning to end.

PF: Yes, you get the sense of the trip and more, because on the way to some place or coming back you get things that—

DW: We didn’t plan.

PF: So this trip to the dam is planned, but everything you see along the way—

RT: Are not things you anticipate?

DW: Right.

PF: And here [looking at the video screen] it will start to rain and heavy techno music comes on at the end. It turns into a pop-music video in the end—

DW: You can hear it now. [The beat of the techno music starts to pound through the speakers.] The camera’s in autofocus, and it starts to focus on the drops on the windshield glass.

PF: We like this, when the video becomes something completely different.

DW: Those special effects are—

PF: They’re so cheap, they are—

RT: Naturalistic effects.

PF: And now the horse comes. Horses are crossing the road. These are big moments.

RT: I am curious to hear more of your ideas about tunnels, holes, and tubes.

The phone rings. David goes to pick it up, but it stops.

DW: I’m lucky—

PF: Ten minutes ago somebody called, asking: “Are you Peter Fischli from Nevels [a small town in the mountains where everyone has the name Fischli]?” I said: “No, I am not from this village,” and they replied: “Sorry, wrong number.”

The techno music begins to grow louder.

DW: The sound quality is really good, considering. You’re sitting in the car with the engine on—

PF: We taped it off the radio.

DW: It isn’t mixed in later.

RT: It’s recorded directly through the camera? That’s very good sound quality—especially the techno music.

We are still watching footage of the car trip from the dam to Zurich.

PF: Well, this is a nice piece of music.

DW: Yes, it is. The last piece of music that came on before this was a little bit stupid. But what can you do?

PF: What can we do? That techno music is the fashionable thing. It’s nice that the sky is still a little bit lit.

The videotape ends.

DW: Can I have a cigarette? Oh, you are out.

PF: Next tape. We cut in the black for 20 seconds in between each segment: 10 seconds of black from the first tape and 10 seconds of black from the second, and it—

DW: It starts again with the rain and snow.

We watch the beginning of the next tape, another drive with heavy wet snow hitting the windshield.

PF: My mother went to Venice to see the exhibition and said this is the one video she always watches. This windshield and the rain and—

RT: I like looking at this image. Have you seen the German television program with the POV camera from the train? It’s shown very late at night, and the ambience of the train tracks and all the scenery going by is very meditative and relaxing.

PF: Look, this is the special effect we told you about, the “little miracle in everyday life.”

In the distance through the heavy snow, a snowplow is approaching from the opposite lane. As the plow passes by, the car swerves into the opposite lane, the road is clear of snow.

“Peter Fischli and David Weiss: In a Restless World” remains on view at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis until 11 August 1996. The show will he on view at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia, 8 November 1996 to 17 January 1997; Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbus, Ohio, 8 February to 13 April 1997; the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, 8 October 1997 to 4 January 1998; and the Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg, Wolfsburg, Germany, 7 February 1998 to 3 May 1998.