PRINT May 2005


Tino Sehgal has spoken of a “situational” dimension to his work, and the same word might also describe the publication of this interview. Over the course of the past year, I approached the artist a number of times about the possibility of contributing a project to the magazine, or of taking part in a conversation. On each occasion we had an extended dialogue before setting aside the idea, often concluding that the proposal, as it stood, was not quite commensurate with his practice. These negotiations alone would have made for quite an interview in these pages, providing valuable insight into the true rigor of Sehgal's endeavors while miming, almost comically, the intriguing gamesmanship of his own work. As the following discussion evidences, the artist did finally agree to speak with us—but apparently we are still negotiating the terms of exchange.

Tim Griffin

TIM GRIFFIN: What is your idea of “deproduction”? Or better, how would you describe the simultaneous production and deproduction that you claim for your work?

TINO SEHGAL: “Deproduction” in itself isn’t of particular interest to me but the simultaneity of production and deproduction is. The mode of production that takes place in my work is what one could call the transformation of actions. If one does a movement or sings or speaks, then one is obviously producing something. But immediately as a note ends or the movement stops, it is gone; it deproduces itself. In the prevalent mode of production (which most other visual artworks adhere to and thus promote)—which is the transformation of material—deproduction is something that at best takes place after the product has been used, not as something inherent in it but as something external to it. So even the deproduction of a material thing needs again more labor and resources to be invested in it.

The reason I’m interested in the transformation of actions and the simultaneity of production and deproduction is because I think that the appearance in Western societies in the twentieth century of both an excess supply of the goods that fulfill basic human needs and mankind’s endangering of the specific disposition of “nature” in which human life seems possible renders the hegemony of the dominant mode of production questionable. Obviously, this doesn’t mean to propose an essentialist “No” to material objects in general but rather leads to the question as to how we could produce things that, on the one hand, aren’t problematic and, on the other, are more interesting or complex, or less static.

TG: Still, do you fear that your “deproduced” entity might end up a material production? Is it possible that even when you put something out in a “deproduced” fashion, it can be—and I use my next word reluctantly—reified, or brought back into a material mode? I know, for example, that you don’t allow photographic reproductions of your work.

TS: My work isn’t deproduced; it is produced and it is material, but the difference is that it materializes itself in the human body and not in a material object. I don’t make photographic or filmic reproductions of my work, because it exists as a situation, and therefore substituting it with some material object like a photo or video doesn’t seem like an adequate documentation. Also, my works take a form that exists over time—as they can be shown over and over again—so they’re not dependent on any kind of documentation to stand in for them.

Your reference to this classical discourse of reification connotes a critique of the material object as product, that there is something inherently prob- lematic about something becoming a product. That’s not my line of think- ing. I criticize the mode of production inherent to a material object but not the fact that it can be bought or sold.

TG: There was a time when, for certain artists, distribution was part of the artwork. Your work seems, if not antithetical to a distribution model, actively resistant—or a kind of antimatter, removed yet reactive. How does your project engage the language and media around it?

TS: My work isn’t at all resistant to a distribution model, as it can be acquired and collected. Also, I’m not sure what you mean by “removed.” It is presented in exhibitions like any other artwork, maybe with the difference that it actually does, even literally, engage with what is going on around it. There once was a review of my work in your magazine in which the writer wondered if, in the very act of writing about my work, she was necessarily betraying it. That’s complete nonsense in my view. As with any other art, my work wants to communicate and is dependent on its reception. For me, the issue simply is the way such a communication takes place—that it doesn’t substantially alter the character of my work, as a photograph would.

TG: And language can do this? I know that you are very resistant to the use of the word “performance” to describe your work.

TS: Well, language is rooted in a referential mode, while a documentary image is always in danger of being taken as something in itself, especially, of course, in the field of visual art. Then, as soon as you refer to “performance” in art, there are very clear historical connotations. A performance involves one person or a group of people presenting something to another group of people at a certain, previously announced time, while my work operates in the temporality of the visual-art exhibition. It’s always there, like any other artwork. You can walk in, you’re included. My work doesn’t start and finish. And why I think that this notion is so deadly for a reading of my works is that at the core of my operation I’m trying to use existing conventions and fill them with something else. Whereas performance wanted to go outside of these conventions. And these are not only aesthetic but also ideological questions.

TG: I’m going to put your own words back to you: How can you use existing conventions and fill them up with something else?

TS: As the twentieth century has shown, sooner or later a lot of conventions come back into play, so I think it’s more interesting to operate within them rather than pretend we’re outside—when we aren’t. Then, what I’m trying to say is that there’s a certain set of conventions, related to a certain ideology—this ideology being a celebration of material production connected to an idea of a subject that forms itself through what it materially produces—and let’s see if I can fill them with another one. Is this model, which we’ve had for ages, still so interesting today? Can I go into this place where the celebration of this model has installed itself in Western society, the museum, and celebrate something else?

TG: In terms of recent art history, your choice of words suggests the adopting of some vernacular of administration. But how would you place yourself in regard to that discussion? I ask in part because if there is “criticality” to your work, it nevertheless doesn’t seem an ordinary or conventional one when it comes to the institution.

TS: I’m not sure about what you mean by “my choice of words,” but my work isn’t critical of the institution in the sense of, for example, criticizing its representational power; nor is my work trying to expose or deconstruct the museum’s mechanisms, as institutional critique did. I’m interested in the museum as a place for long-term politics. So in that sense I would say I operate totally inside what you’d call the institution. I’m just trying to define the way in which it does what it’s there for; so I’m not against the intergenerational function of the museum, I am not against its address or celebration of the individual, but I am against its continuous, unreflected-on celebration of material production.

TG: In our previous conversations, you’ve said that art fairs offer an almost perfect context for your work. Why?

TS: Because I think there’s a kind of monoculture on how to think about economic structures. This is apparent even in our conversation now. You look at my work and say, “Where’s the product? When does it get reified?” You’re implying that I’m trying to do something that is not a product, that cannot be reified—and that’s totally not what I’m trying to do. I think that, at the very moment one wants to do something specialized, one has to exchange that something in order to be able to cover one’s basic needs, so one is in the market. Factually, you do want to be inside the market. So for me, this whole discourse of reification isn’t interesting. Instead of being against the product, for me the question is rather how to use the market to circulate a different, more sustainable, and more interesting kind of product.

TG: We’ve discussed the art-historical connotations around certain vocabularies. Is there another vocabulary you find yourself responding to more than others? Or here’s a simpler way to put the question: Your earliest piece, which was recently at the ICA in London, includes references to Bruce Nauman and Dan Graham. How do you see your project in relation to, say, theirs?

TS: This particular work is a critique of certain works of theirs: Both Nauman and Graham did these videos and films in the late ’60s and early ’70s, when they were influenced by choreography. In these works they were transposing something, like dance—a mode of production that is a transformation of action—into a transformation of material. They took up dance and placed it in the museum but as video or film, whereas I’m interested in placing a transformation of action as a transformation of action into the museum.

TG: With the use of those motions, is there a sort of meaningful miming taking place? It seems like there might be a miming happening on two levels—one quite literally, their motions; second, a miming of their introduction of those motions into the museum.

TS: Yes, I think that’s a way one could put it, a miming to highlight the difference.

TG: Do you think of a constellation of artists around you? Which artists today most interest you?

TS: They’re obviously not of my generation, but I’m interested in Daniel Buren and Jeff Koons. I have the impression people don’t really look at their works closely anymore, even though they are doing quite different things today than they were doing before.

TG: How do you see their work operating?

TS: Well, obviously, they’re involved with the transformation of materials, so I’m opposed to what they’re doing in that sense. But, when it comes to the production of meaning, I’m interested in the way meaning is placed in the factual effects that their more recent works produce. They don’t operate on a content level but more on a situational level. I am, for example, thinking of Buren’s solo show at the Pompidou in 2002 or Koons’s newer works, like the “Celebration” series. I’m interested in the way they shape the situational experience of an artwork and the assumptions that underlie this experience. On this level there may be a connection to my work.

TG: And how does your own work function on this “factual” level?

TS: One aspect might be that you cannot be uninvolved, somehow, when there’s this other person who can look back at you. The viewer in my work is always confronted with him- or herself, with his or her own presence in the situation, as something that matters, as something that influences and shapes this situation. This experience that his or her own presence has consequences can kind of empower the viewer.

Tim Griffin is editor of Artforum.