Jan Köchermann, Michael Lingner

Mutiny on the Bounty

Jan Köchermann in Conversation with Michael Lingner

Michael Lingner: In our preliminary discussion for this interview, I got the impression that your work develops out of—and consists of—ideas, themes, subjects, or elements with primarily biographical backgrounds.

I find this remarkable, considering the fact that, in contrast to the approach you take, avantgarde art has traditionally taken artistic problems as its point of departure for artistic praxis—problems also formulated quite clearly by the artists themselves. Take, for example, Frank Stella, whose famous stripe paintings and shaped canvases of the nineteen-sixties address the artistic problem as to how a pictorial field can be organized in a non-hierarchical way, but also in such a way as to avoid creating a negative form in relation to the edge of the painting whenever a (positive) form is introduced.

Naturally, the artist's personality definitely does play a decisive role in this manner of working, namely, when it comes to identifying the problem. But the final artistic form results more or less stringentty from the attempt to solve the artistic problem.

With regard to your work, what l'm interested in is the process by which the biographical elements take form, and whether you see this as a specifically artistic formative process. But perhaps you can Start by giving a typical example of the biographical background for your work/s.

Jan Köcherman: The early formative processes did in fact have less of an artistic background, and were more a playful reaction to social issues. One example of a work in which my biographical background played a role was an experimental model I set up in 1988 after a friend of mine was killed in a car accident. At the time, there were only the usual mourning rituals, which had nothing whatsoever to do with me. Then I started investigating traffic fatality statistics: 8,213 people died in traffic accidents in 1988 in West Germany alone. I was interested not only in the dead, but also in those who "survived," who weren't killed, who numbered about 62,000,000. I laid out paper measuring sixty-two Square meters—in other words, one Square milümeter for each inhabitant—and, using a one-square-millimeter rubber stamp, started stamping 8,213 black dots over the surface of the paper. It took hours. And besides the various shades of meaning that this task evoked for me as the "stamper," it required a Lot of effort not to lose count. In the end, what I had before me was a surface spattered with black dots like a starry firmament, though what interested me most were the white areas surrounding the black dots. You got the Impression that almost everyone in the nation must have known someone who had died in a traffic accident in 1988.

ML: It's surprising how a sense of personal shock and intimacy can ensue from applying an objectified, essentially statistical method, due to the fact that the positive forms stamped in black automaticatly assume a relationship with the surrounding white areas. At the same time, you found a form of action which afforded you an appropriate means of commemorating your friend.

But how did you come up with the idea? Couldn't you have reacted to your friend's death with an emotional expressionist painting? Does your creative approach, consciously or not, take recourse to artistic or, in the broadest sense, conceptual approaches? This brings to mind Agnes Martin, for example, or Hanne Darboven. In which case, this would be a kind of concrete, practical application of a predetermined abstract method. Or is the formative process, like the event which occasioned it, of a primarily biographical nature?

Either way, l'd like to come back to the question of what here, for you, specifically constitutes this work's artistic character. This strikes me as an important issue because without some form of relationship to the art context we wouldn't find ourselves discussing your reaction in public. Or do you have reasons why you consider the "art issue" to be of secondary importance?

JK: I often try to encounter the art world with my eyes half-closed so as to steer clear of the endless questions about context, the relentless vetting and the overladen notions of art. When you draw, you squint your eyes into a blur to reduce what you see to rough forms and lines, to gain an impression of the general proportions and the overall picture without immediately getting lost in minor details.

I don't mean mindlessly goofing around doing art with no particular aim, without any focus. It's just that here precision lies less in the implementation of a predetermined proven method than in arriving at your ideas by trusting your intuitive imagination. If in the course of producing a work you succeed in developing a specific form suited to the issue you're dealing with, then you should be able to briefly stop painting and continue working with, say, statistics.

Supposing I have the idea of installing an electrical socket at a certain place in the city where homeless people hang out, so they too can have a power supply under a bridge, for instance, then I could carry out that idea immediately, just to see what happens. Or I could Start by asking: to what extent is this art? As far as I am concerned, checking whether the implementation of an idea actually fits in with my work as a whole and with art in general often comes second.

ML: Precisely in the example you mentioned, it would seem obvious to react as quickly and directly as possible to a need you have perceived and take seriously. And of course that can be done without further consideration of this action's relation to art as an "ethical entity."

But on the other hand, you act as an artist, and it is only the art context that provides a conceptual and financial base for you to carry out the action, and in some way even rewards you conceptually and financially too. Hence there is no doubt that you are subscribing to the "ethical entity" of art, and even profiting from it.

In my somewhat old-fashioned way of thinking, the question that Springs to mind is what are you giving back to art as a profession? In other words, how much social responsibility are you showing not only toward homeless people, but also toward the art metier as a discourse Community which recognizes and supports your artistic praxis?

If you can accept this point of view at all, don't you owe it to that Community not simply to claim the Status of art for your work implicitly, but also to try, at least retrospectively, to explicitly justify it as art?

That could only be fruitful and make sense, however, if the respective deliberations were conducted in an open-minded manner without foregone conclusions. That is, if one allowed the possibility of explaining one's work not to be art, or not yet at least, or to be insufficiently so, and of arriving at the most plausible hypotheses possible pro and contra the work being art.

If not, you'd be acting as if it were already a given fact that your work makes a contribution to art as an "ethical enti-ty," and all there would be left to do is to legitimize or rationalize that fact. That would hardly be a true discourse, however, but rather a kind of art marketing which would ultimately destroy the credibility of art as an "ethical entity."

JK: Professor Shando, an old Persian magician, recently told me that his Professional ethics forbid him to reveal how a conjuring trick is done or to perform it twice in a row. He's right, of course. Anyway, with his old-school illusionist tricks, the public has to decide whether it would prefer to fall for the magic or instead unmask the magician.

Due to the very real life-threatening risks presented by my shaft installations Schacht 1-9, for an entire decade my work was neither suitable for galleries nor for institutions. Besides the totally miserable cost-benefit ratio I experienced as a result, maybe word never got around to me about the deal that says art's "ethical entity" is so in need of justification by artists.

And l'm not really sure what to think of that because ever since artists agreed to go along with the game and supply plausible hypotheses for their works from the very start—legitimizing them as art in case of doubt—we've had to endure endless hair-raising scenarios of self-justification, with the work itself no longer playing the role it should. And perhaps the fact that these Claims are now so taken for granted actually poses a threat to the credibility of art discourse.

Wouldn't it be better for the System if the tasks continued to be divided up so that each person did what he does best? l'm responsible for the idea, the transformation, and the formative process, and you decide to what extent it's art and serves the purposes of art—assuming, in the first place, you find the work convincing. I feel much safer when the man down in the engine room isn't trying to teil the captain how to navigate....

Isn't the most important thing, ultimately, that the reflection or deliberation you call for be triggered by the work of art itself, even if it can be a bit frustrating when artists are so reticent about participating in theoretical discourse?

ML: It never ceases to surprise me that people—not just artists—prefer to treat the "art issue" as taboo. But isn't art, whatever the individual genre we are acquainted with, the mother of the artist's work, the mother it loves and needs? At any rate (to stay with the nautical metaphor) l'd rather see the artist as the captain and the art theorist/ critic—at most—as a pilot navigating the shoals of discourse about the quality of contributions to the body of artistic research.

To be continued ...


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