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Image Politics – Fragments of Contemporary History Considered as Tragedy

Interview by Kathrine Bolt Rasmussen, Overgaden

Kathrine Bolt Rasmussen In your current exhibition at Overgaden, you have been inspired by the theatre's way of telling stories and presenting spaces. Could you start by telling us what it is about the theatrical form that interests you?

Jakob Jakobsen The exhibition is based on the dark space of the theatre, the form known as a ‘black box’ in the theatrical world, which could be seen as a counterpart to the white cube of the gallery space, but functions in a fundamentally different way. The interesting thing about the black box as a setting is that it creates a completely different space to the white box. In contrast to the white box, which has a clear geometrical definition, the black box is formless. The corners of the black box fade out, and the geometrical character of the room is concealed in the dark, which creates a totally different kind of perception, another form of body in the space. But as well as that, I have always felt that the art space functions like a stage. The art space is a stage upon which you present your work, even though it is usually presented in a different way to that of the theatre. I thought that I would accept that fact, and quite literally turn the art space into a stage. So that was one of the reasons why I decided to work with the theatre as a form.

Another part of my reflections regarding the theatre concerns its form of production, which is always collective. Although of course I am the one who is finally responsible, just as it is the director who is finally responsible for a theatrical performance, the production form in the theatre is collective, and involves all kinds of technical and artistic skills. It is not just an isolated artist presenting his work. In the rest of my more self-organised practice I always work collectively, and so I felt I would like to utilise this more open and dynamic form of production in connection with this exhibition. So the theatre worked well as a model, as I have co-operated with quite a lot of people in connection with Image Politics. No actors, though.

A final aspect is that I feel art is about producing images, about producing the imaginary. In this connection, it is interesting that in Danish the word 'forestilling' links external performance with the internal conceptions of the consciousness. This is perhaps exactly what defines the potential of the black box – the possibility of merging the inner and outer performance.

KBR As indicated by the title of the exhibition, Image Politics – Fragments of Contemporary History Considered as Tragedy, you make considerable use of a particular theatrical genre in order to stage your exhibition. Why did you pick tragedy as the frame for the exhibition?

JJ What I have always found stimulating about artistic work is the arsenal of different forms that it offers. Playing with the forms that art offers, in terms of genres. And the form of tragedy provides some possibilities to reflect on various social and existential topics. It is interesting to use tragedy as a tool with which to analyse certain relations, emotions and structures, in a different way than if, for example, you took a theoretical approach to the material. Art is a language, and it is precisely in this light that I am fascinated by tragedy. The interesting thing about tragedy, as a form, is that it does not just deal with some unfortunate circumstances – tragedy is also about inherent conflicts, insoluble contradictions, which are built into the system. And exactly these contradictions lead to the entire system breaking down. I feel that the fatal collapse which usually occurs in tragic tales has certain parallels in the current development of society, which in my opinion has some intractable conflicts built into the system that contribute towards splitting it. You might say that with the help of tragedy, I am attempting to look into the conflict, into the actual breakdown, in order perhaps to be able to understand the logic of this breakdown.

KBR The exhibition plays out in three acts, or is centred on three scenes. Can you tell us a little about these scenes?

JJ The scenes of the exhibition are based on certain areas of social and political conflict with which I have been actively engaged over the past four to five years. The headings for the three scenes are, respectively, the Territory, the Camp and the City. The Territory, the first scene of the exhibition, is based on my journeys in Palestine, and relates particularly to the occupation of the West Bank, and to how a space is organised in a situation in which an occupying force attempts to consolidate and expand its control over a particular territory. But I also use the concept of the territory as an image of a relationship that exists in many other places, so it does not necessarily relate specifically to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. It deals with more general matters of territory, borders and control, which I feel are ubiquitous, and which we can also see in our own society.

The second scene of the exhibition, the Camp, is based on a particular demonstration that I helped to organise in 2008, called 'Shut down the Camp'. The demonstration was a popular attempt to close down the Sandholm refugee camp, and the narrative is about how a group of activists, grandmothers, students and all kinds of other people attempted to dismantle the fence around the camp. A camp like Sandholm provides concrete evidence of how our society sorts bodies into the wanted and the unwanted, which this demonstration sought to challenge. At the same time, this narrative also shows what the police or those in power are willing to do in order to defend the fence and maintain the image of the camp.

The third scene of the exhibition is the City, and deals with the way that the city of Copenhagen, and the district of Nørrebro in particular, has developed over the past ten years. The visual material I use consists of videos recorded on the 1st and 2nd of March 2007, when the urban space suddenly became completely reorganised after the storming of Ungdomshuset (the Youth House). The conflicts which had long smouldered in the district suddenly broke out. The city was blacked out, and there were riots and bonfires in the streets. It was as though another city suddenly became visible, as the ruling order broke down and chaos was allowed to show its face. These are the three narratives upon which the exhibition's three scenes are based.

KBR The hub of the exhibition is image politics, and the fact that an actual political public seems today to have been replaced by an all-dominating image management regime. In recent years, and particularly since the terrorist attacks of 11th of September 2001, we have seen how the struggle with and for images has grown in intensity. What are the strengths and weaknesses of the image?

JJ An image is in many ways magical, as it is very difficult to control. Images have always been associated with the representation of power in one way or another, as we can see in historical paintings or war paintings which describe power relations, for example by showing who is the leader of the army, who is the emperor, who is the sovereign. So in that way, pictures have always been involved in presenting power, and have in many ways been related to power and to the way that power views itself.

But with the modern consumer society, it is perhaps not so much a matter of individual pictures, but rather of whole series of images or whole performances being produced, and which present a system of power: images of happy families eating one breakfast product or another, and so on. Since the beginning of the so-called “war on terror", the image has become a central factor which has helped to shape ideas of allies and enemies, the good and the bad, in a very aggressive manner. Here, the image has simply been an element in the waging of war, and the manner in which the war, the political leaders and the acts of war are represented in the western world has been very carefully presented.

We should of course see this against the background of the experiences gained from, for example, the Vietnam War, of how images can arouse popular anger and resistance, and can thereby be harmful to those in power. This is one of the reasons why we rarely see our own violence, the violence of the western alliance, in the media today. We see only the violence of others. We see the terrorist attacks of 11 September, and we see the suicide bombers in Baghdad, Mumbai and London, but we very rarely see the western missiles hitting villages in mountainous regions of Pakistan. So our own violence is invisible, we see only the violence of others.

On the other hand, images also have ways of getting around these image regimes. We saw that when the images from Abu Ghraib were published, because then we were suddenly confronted with our own violence, the state-sanctioned torture, and this helped to break down all illusions. Although there had previously been many reports and critical articles indicating that torture had been used in several places, it was the images that really brought this home. In many ways, the all-dominating image regime under which we live shows just how frightened those in power are of popular opinion. Images have become an integrated part of the war; and this has roots which go right back to the origins of the consumer society, when images were first taken to market certain products and lifestyles. Today, it is the war that is being marketed.

KBR How do you see the role of art in this current struggle for political representation? Is it possible to create a visual resistance, and show the world in a different light?

JJ I feel that art has been largely absent from criticism of the war that has been waged. And I think that has to do with the fact that over the past 10 to 15 years, art has been associated with an economic boom, as a result of which art, to an overwhelming degree, now reflects these market relations. So although there may be artists who have worked with the war theme, it has often been a kind of spice added to promote sales of their pictures, rather than a critique of the way in which the war has been represented.

On the other hand, I am sure that art can contribute to discussing and criticising the form that the image takes and the image regime that is produced. It ought to be possible on the basis of artistic knowledge. But the problem is also, of course, that the public sphere, in a broad sense, has been very limited. It has been very difficult to create counter-images to the war on terror, not only for artists, but also for citizens and activists. We saw this when one million people demonstrated in London, without this having any effect at all, either politically or on the public. No images were created of an active resistance.

KBR Your current exhibition brings together various themes from a number of projects that you have been working on in recent years, and you have, so to speak, been at street level in order to document the conflicts and confrontations taking place in the open public space, such as the storming of the Youth House and the Shut down the Camp demonstration. You have also organised a number of seminars, published pamphlets, and regularly taken part in the activist milieu in Copenhagen. Your projects have rarely been shown in traditional exhibition spaces, and this is the first time that you have presented a large solo exhibition in Denmark. Why have you chosen the gallery space for this exhibition? How can the art institution be used in this context?

JJ I see it as an opportunity to extend my work. But the reason why I chose to go in this direction was that I found that the art scene opened up a little bit once the economic boom had died down. The boom had in many ways defined the art that had been created. Almost all art was mediated via the galleries, and the norms imposed by the galleries for artistic production also applied in the institutional spaces. But when the whole economic boom collapsed, it was as though this commercially-defined framework for artistic production lost some of its power, at any rate in Copenhagen. I found that the art space was suddenly vacant, and that it was not as narrowly defined as it had been during a period in which certain forms of practice were emphasised above others. So I felt that there was an opportunity to use Overgaden as a platform upon which to discuss the image as a political entity. I felt it would be interesting to re-politicise the debate about the image, both in art and in society in general, and I hope that this exhibition will act as a catalyst for this.

KBR The exhibition has the character of a diagnosis of the current state of society. Where do you feel we are going, and what do you feel is needed in order to create a new, critical public debate?

JJ Well, we'll have to see. Actually, I am quite sceptical. This exhibition is about the loss brought about by the collapse of the public political debate. What does it mean to have no voice? In this sense I am entering an area which investigates the personal and political paralysis brought about by the developments since 9/11. In the neo-liberal mainstream, all conflicts are packaged in solution-oriented newspeak and mediated via various market fixes. We can see this, for example, in the climate crisis, which has become almost exclusively regarded as a new opportunity for expansion, a chance to reap yet more rewards, without considering the fact that it is precisely this way of thinking that is contributing towards the destruction of the climate. Just as with the financial crisis, where the paradoxical solution was more consumption. So this whole kind of positive thinking that underlies neo-liberalism – the idea that you should always produce constructive criticism, add new things to the system – is not something I am interested in reproducing. I am actually more interested in pointing out the conflicts and paradoxes inherent in the system, and looking at the terrible things that perhaps characterise our existence, rather than just saying "this problem is a good thing, we must try to solve it with new products". I am interested in investigating negation, in examining what happens when the system breaks down. And in that breakdown, I see some possibilities. But we have to face up to the breakdown, not just come up with false hopes.

The interview took place 11 January 2010 in Copenhagen.