Jan Svenungsson

"A Dialogue between Tom Nicholson and Jan Svenungsson", in folder for exhibition "course" at Ocular Lab, Melbourne, 2005

TN: I think the first work of yours I saw was a coarsely pixellated image of a chimney. I later understood that the chimney was a sculpture of yours, part of an ongoing project of building chimneys, each one metre taller than the last. The pixellation of that image generated a slowed-down pace of looking and reading, like the pace of some viscous substance. I looked at that picture for quite some time, and became aware that you had created that pixel system by hand, using a woodcut process to imitate a mechanical printing process. I read that pixellated surface partly in relation to the brickwork of the chimney itself, as an aggregation of manual labour.

JS: The bridge that brought us together was made of coarse pixels... That work you talk about is a rather extreme outpost of the chimney project. One of the things that motivates me to be an artist is the possibility of making work that after a while takes command by itself and drags me along, instead of the opposite. Originally, I got into building chimneys brick by brick, because at one time I wanted to reproduce in reality what already existed as a photograph... Then this new reality became very inviting to photograph in its turn. Later, sitting with my (new) photograph in front of me, I hit on the idea for yet another way of remaking this image in three dimensions bit by bit. This time the height of my new creation was to be a couple of millimeters, not ten meters. I actually made three four-color-woodcuts, all with the idea that something amazing would be found hiding between the pixels, once the four plates came together in the press. They took me half a year of cutting... (I like manual labour – I like to forget my thoughts!) Still, it's a tad disappointing that whatever can be found hiding in these prints is very shy, it only comes out to a select group of people. You're obviously one of them – but then you were already in the business! What was it that brought your interest in pixels?

TN: My interest in the pixellated image probably originated in newspapers. At art school, I collected newspaper photographs of Deng Xiaoping, published at his death in early 1997, and used them to make photograms, a process that gave individual pixels a weight that I think stayed in my head. When I began to make large–scale banners in Berlin I started with small pixellated drawings, imitating a mechanical system by hand. In a pragmatic sense, they became a way to navigate the process of enlarging the drawings into large images on banners. It was also a way to create a field where the body seems to be dispersing in some way, a weightless space inside the banners. This has been one way to try to work against the conventional banner march, a central purpose of which is to enact the unity or agglomeration of bodies ("we are one body in our belief in 'x'"). The first time I tried to march a banner and filmed it I was caught by surprise at the reaction between the pixels on the banner and the pixel system of the video image – a kind of moving moiré is how a friend on that first trial march described it. That shimmer generated by the grip between two screens began to structure my work with pixels.

JS: For one of these woodcuts I would begin with having a photo (my own – representing one of my chimneys) mechanically pixellated, which I then transferred by hand to the plates and cut. What we see at the end is a hand made approximation of a mechanical approximation of an indexical two–dimensional rendering of a three-dimensional work, which in its own loose way refers back to another photo. When I go back and read this description I think it sounds almost idiotic in its devoted obsession with layers of pictorial rendering. Yet, I can't deny that when it comes down to what I can and want to do in my art... this kind of procedure is typical. It seems important to me, put simply. I can't say in simple words exactly what it is that makes it important.

TN: It's a very persistent characteristic of your work: a processing of the image that produces a kind of thickening, a certain visual density…

JS: If we now look at what happens to one of your drawings, an obvious difference is that you seem less concerned with the "translating a translation" idea which is important to me (and which is related to my core interest in language, and how all meaning resides there). You make your large image in order to bring it out in the street, where it becomes the object for a simulated political act – and thus part of an uncontrollable reality. This action is captured on video. Where and when is the high point of this process? Out there, during the march – or in here, watching its video trace?

TN: The banner marches have two lives. I don't think of one as higher than the other. Their relationship isn't straight–forward: there is a shift between the action in real-time and the traces in the gallery. There are contradictions (I enjoy) in the process of organising a banner march with no explicit purpose which are stronger in the actions than in the traces. And I am conscious of the curious relationship between actions and traces in postwar performance work: the Leap-into-the-Void problem.... I have always conceived of the relationship between an action and its trace in drawing terms. Part of what is interesting in the graphic tradition is that a drawing is a trace of physical actions (usually of the hand and arm across a sheet of paper), as well as a kind of proposition (ie. "this is Christ on the cross"). I think the drawings I find most interesting are structured in some way by the relationship between these two orders of meaning, the indexical and the iconical. Certainly that relationship has informed how I have worked with the banner marches and their traces.

JS: Whenever I think of your marches I can't escape the following (translated) passage from Giorgio de Chirico's Hebdomeros: "(...) the noise of the bells and the fireworks were deafening. The column advanced enthusiastically, with banners to the wind, and hoisted aloft like the aerials of ships on stormy seas strange flags on which were painted and engraved many a disturbing cipher, departure point of a whole long series of inspirations as capricious as they were surprising, and which were sure guarantees for the tranquil period later, when the voices of the oracles had fallen silent as if the spirit had emigrated far from earth. Those were the days, my young friends, when (...)"

TN: It's a great passage. The Catholic tradition of banner marching, which I guess is De Chirico's source, is something I have always been conscious of, particularly its frequent association with the commemoration of death. I am also aware of your own interest in De Chirico's novel, and the way surrealism often lurks somewhere in your work, like the presence of automatism in those Psycho-Mapping drawings. I am acutely aware of the body asserting itself indexically in those progressions of drawings, against or into the symbolic content of the maps.

JS: I guess what I'm after is finding a way to create those "disturbing signs" that will unleash "long series of inspirations"... (in the original French Hebdomeros the word "signe" is used, where the translation has "cipher"). But how do you do it? If I can avoid it I don't use theoretical models to "translate" my work. The work itself will typically include some sort of translation used as a production tool, to generate "the disturbing sign" that I'm after. In the Psycho-Mappings we could talk about "reluctant" translation or "translation in denial". A translation that was not supposed to be. These works are based on me trying to make a perfect copy of a map (without any tools other than my pen). Then I make a copy of the copy, and then again. In the end so many mistakes will have accumulated that I will have a completely new map which I hadn't planned and couldn't have foreseen. All my efforts having been directed at avoiding change... It's true that there is a direct trace of my body in these unwitting changes.

TN: The presence of the body indexically is for me a point of connection to News Hour, the work you are showing at Ocular Lab, a work which in some other ways is unlike your other work. What is hypnotic about the work is partly that lilting rhythm created by the movement of the camera, attached to your body as it runs around rainy Berlin. That implied presence of your body is reinforced by sound, by breathing, but it is also disturbed by sound, the one hour of BBC World Service News Hour, to which your run through Berlin is syncronised. For me, the work operates through a curious dislocation. It also implicates the individual body back into that odd disembodied space of international radio.

JS: My way of making those "disturbing signs" is usually to define a process with certain rules, which demands a sustained activity from my side, during which I will almost forget what was the reason for the work in the first place. Then at the end of the process I feel like something will have been developed without my interference... this is what I was after with the woodcuts and the Psycho-Mappings, and certainly with the News Hour video. My decision was to run a one hour course through Berlin holding a video camera in front of me, during the News Hour program of January 27, 2003, the day when Hans Blix was going to make his final report to the Security Council on the weapons inspections in Iraq. I knew it was going to be an interesting news programme – but I didn't know in exactly what way – and I for sure didn't know what bad or good news would be combined with the historically loaded monuments of Berlin that I would pass during my run.

TN: I think that relationship you are talking about is important to what we are doing together at Ocular Lab: between, on the one hand, an urban landscape which is physically traversed, and a political space where events and discourse from all over the world intermingle. The relationship between those two spaces is arbitrary in your work, but by no means meaningless. I am often conscious of a similar disconnect in the banner marching project.

JS: A funny aspect of this video is its multiple indexicality: as I was actually listening to the news programme in my little radio while running, you can track not only exactly where I was at a given point in time but in what context I received certain information. News Hour uses a scary political situation as a premise, but I'm not sure I could call it "political". Part of a sign's "disturbing" quality is that you can't nail down its exact meaning. To win one thing you have to give something else up. Nevertheless, I admired your installation in Berlin a few years ago (After Action for Another Library): you managed to combine making a straightforward and admirable political initiative with making a poetic, even disturbing!, installation out of it.

TN: The elusive quality of an interesting image – what you describe as a "disturbing sign" – was important in that work, even though it is almost entirely without pictures. It was also the starting point of the banner marches. I wanted to use the form of the banner, with its function of declaration and immediate understanding (and exhaustion) of its 'message'. But I was looking for images which would resist straight–forward reading, a mute banner, or at least one that would disclose its meaning at a different pace. In this sense, the impulse for that work lies in the kind of experience you have before a complex image, an image like, for example, Dürer's Melancolia I, which seems inexhaustible in what it yields as you look at it. It's interesting to me that your video has this sense of a "disturbing sign", even though it is very loaded with overt meaning and text.

JS: "inexhaustible in what it yields as you look at it" – and how can it be? Only if the viewer keeps generating new meaning for it – the image is static, after all. You choose the handmade pixellated image to achieve this: you "framed" it with a march. My very first works were based on making frames (with particular shapes) for fuzzy and indeterminate photos, in order to make them special... I soon found out, of course, that they had to be "special" to begin with – but then the marriage to the frame could yield some very interesting results. This experiment has been continued, through various different works. The News Hour run – it's the frame itself. In both our works discussed here we use ourselves (+ friends, in your case) as framing tools.

TN: It's interesting you are reluctant to call News Hour "political". I am generally cautious about the term "political art'. Only in the sense that it has the same ring to it as "paralympics", as though buried within it is a contradiction in terms or the implication it is something less than the real thing. Whether it is Dante's Divine Comedy, or Michelangelo's Sistine Ceiling, the Western canon is impossible to imagine without overt political or philosophical text. In the case of your video, the question for me is not whether it is "political art" or not, but whether it is glib political art, or if its political content is articulated through its formal complexity.

JS: I guess if you deliberately attempt to make "political art", you will naturally try to control all of the content generating process. Either you fail in this attempt – or the work will fail: be glib.

July 2005.

Tom Nicholson & Jan Svenungsson