Antonia Hirsch and Olaf Nicolai
Antonia Hirsch – Two summers ago, when I started re-searching the idea of “economies of desire,” you lent me a tonne of books on this topic and we had a number of conversations that were really inspiring for me. But later I thought, “Hold on, how come you have all these books on money, desire, exchange, and so on?” It’s not something that is obviously evident in your work. Then I remembered Die Gabe, a project you started in 1993, I think. It was a series of folios that each consisted of six to ten pages of loose-leaf paper. Some folios contained images or more complicated die-cut components, and the contributors, of which there are seventeen to date, are from all sorts of disciplines, not just art. Thinking about this work, I wondered why you chose to call it Die Gabe (The Gift) because, in many ways, one could say it’s an edition like any other.
Olaf Nicolai – The precepts of Die Gabe were not quite those of a regular edition; I wanted to create an opening, something that decisively didn’t perform a self-documentation through the presentation of my own works but instead featured the works of others that were important to me. The idea was to produce something on behalf of somebody else and to make it freely available, even though at the time I didn’t have access to significant economic resources. Today it would be considered modest what one of those folios cost to produce back then, but I probably put the equivalent of a month’s worth of income toward each cahier. At the same time, obviously, this gesture of giving something was tied to expectations that translated into one condition: those who I invited were to refer in their contributions to the work of yet others in turn—artists, writers, scientists, or to found objects that were somehow important to them.
Hirsch – The way you describe it, the project seems not only to borrow its name from Mauss’s famous essay, but it also seems to refer quite explicitly to the kula1—the gift circle that Mauss describes.
Nicolai – That is part of the premise of the project, but even though I had read Mauss’s essay on the gift, I don’t think I was specifically aware of the kula. The text I remember reading at the time describes the potlatch, and I was interested in how the gift isn’t entirely neutral, how it is always coloured by something—that there are always social interests negotiated along the way. The gift is commonly understood as something impartial, or indifferent, and you have to look a bit more closely to figure out that a gift can be more threatening than even an overt challenge. And by that I mean not only the poisoned gift, but rather that in the act of giving, a negotiation takes place that is bound by certain rules or etiquette, something akin to diplomacy.
Hirsch – ...where a certain kind of debt is being put into place.
Nicolai – Yes. A relationship is being created. And also a kind of community comes into place. I don’t mean in the sense of an artist group—more like a symbolic order that is held together by a symbolic “ribbon” that represents the give and take in the group in which one shares, but that cannot be joined at will.
Hirsch – But Die Gabe wasn’t your first publication project, was it?
Nicolai – No. The first time that I did something like a publication project was a book called LECTION (Lesson), which was basically the first catalogue that was co-produced by me and my gallery, Eigen+Art [Berlin]. This was in 1990, and Gerd Harry Lybke [the co-founder and owner of the gallery] had the idea that we could also do catalogues, something that had just then become possible. Before [the wall came down] this wasn’t an option [in the GDR, the German Democratic Republic—former socialist East Germany] or, if you did produce publications, they had a very exclusive character. If a book was produced with a very low print run—say one hundred copies or less—it was treated like an artist’s book, which meant it didn’t have to be presented to the censors for approval. After [the wall came down] we could do larger runs and proper distribution became possible. Around this time, he [Lybke] met Erich Maas2 who didn’t yet run his own publishing house. Maas was one of those dyed-in-the-wool Kreuzbergers from the old West Berlin scene.3 He suggested doing a publication that would be very simple, without frills. He sat down with me one afternoon and explained how we could produce something with a run of one thousand copies for one thousand German marks. So I thought about it and two weeks later I showed up at his place with a box of material. I told him that I didn’t really want to picture my work in this publication, but rather show what I was thinking about while I made work: texts, pictures, all sorts of stuff. Then we arranged the material, I told him how things connected for me, and we tried to somehow transpose this onto pages. The finished book became a kind of sourcebook; the next two books I produced by myself, and together they became something of a trilogy that was called Material.
Geschichte und Eigensinn (1981) by Oskar Negt and Alexander Kluge was a really important reference for this project.4 It’s a kind of cultural history where text and image are brought together in what seems to be an associative way—treated very equivalently, not only to make theory more tangible, but also to evoke a different dimension that, in a purely textual form, in pure discourse, doesn’t become accessible. Whereas in Kluge and Negt’s book the text provides a narrative into which the elements of the collage are embedded, in my publications I tried to push the principle of collage further without the mediating text. In my case, the narrative comes about simply through the way in which the elements are tied in with one another.
Hirsch – The particular way in which concepts are articulated seems relevant in terms of your publications, but also in relation to conceptual art in general: the circulation of concepts is important, but if the concept is reduced to language alone, something is potentially missing. Images and objects circulate differently in our experiential sphere—which is spatial and temporal. When we encounter texts, especially more demanding ones, we engage with them deliberately and we have to invest time into understanding them, whereas images we are often exposed to unintentionally, for example in the form of advertising, especially in public space.
Nicolai – Conceptual art was important. I was really fascinated by it in the mid ’80s, but I have to say that conceptual art, in its really clear, straight form—like the early works of Lawrence Weiner, [Joseph] Kosuth, or Robert Barry—were quite foreign to me. I had seen a bit of it in reproduction, but I simply never had had the opportunity to see the works themselves, meaning that I had not had opportunity to apprehend the concepts in their entirety. The same with [Daniel] Buren: I knew the picture, but I knew neither the context the work was produced in, nor that which it responded to. And when I started, at the beginning of the 1990s, to look into these practices more deeply, I had a problem: I could follow rationally, but I always felt that the concepts only ever properly unfolded through intentionality. These artists proposed the emergence of the concept as something that had to be actively, consciously perceived—as such, this kind of intellectual reception had to become an essential aspect of the artwork. The works presupposed and directed themselves towards a necessarily self-reflexive viewer. I have to say that this apparently exclusive focus on the rational seems to me as if describing the tip of an iceberg with nothing underneath—i.e., the entire sensual dimension was being neglected, which seems symptomatic of a deep distrust of the sensible.
I encountered a similar distrust during my time at university in the 1980s when I studied, among other subjects, linguistics. There, I was introduced to [Gottlob] Frege’s5 differentiation between sense and reference, which was being applied to linguistics and semiotics, where it appeared as the differentiation between denotation and connotation. Connotation always exists in the subjective field—all the emotional aspects that are brought to a hard, core term. But when dealing with language, especially with poetic texts, this dualistic model doesn’t work. You can’t access those texts like that; you’ll end up just passing them by. You can say, “This affects me,” but if you are asked to describe how it affects you, this polarized model of language fails you. This kind of concept of language is purely functional. But what is really key, after all, is not that meaning is transmitted, but the way in which a subject relates to meaning. This is what is being articulated through language; this is the defining character of language. What I tried to do—and this is what got me interested in linguistics in the first place—was to find out whether there are any models where connotation, the mode of articulation, forms the central core and denotation, the question of meaning, becomes more or less a side effect...where the core term is more a kind of temporary consolidation that has to take place for communication to be able to occur, but that is actually movement in which one exists as an active speaker in a field circumscribed by connotation.
Hirsch – So, you are proposing almost a conflation of sense experience and emotion. Can you elaborate a bit on how you see the connections among these two?
Nicolai – I’m not trying to suggest a hierarchization of the sensible. A text that I really like because it leaves me productively confused is Jacques Lacan’s Transference. In this seminar, Lacan discusses the enjoyment experienced by the praying mantis and oral pleasure relative to the nipple.6 He very decisively dismisses the notion of the nipple as a precious object of human eroticism—as he calls it—based on a function, namely of satisfying hunger and the pleasurable memory that is attached to this process. It isn’t the satiation of hunger that is the source of pleasure, but a retroactive construction that is based on a demand and the “beyond” of love that is projected by this demand. This leads Lacan to the notion of a dialectic of desire. What I think is important here is that in sensual perception, or sensual experience, we are already dealing with a construct. It is a kind of “flexion”7 that has woven into its specific form what reflection attempts to grasp as sense.
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About the Authors
Antonia Hirsch is an artist based in Berlin and Vancouver. She is Associate Editor at Fillip.
Olaf Nicolai is an artist who lives and works in Berlin. His work has been exhibited at documenta X, the Sydney Biennale 2002, the 51st Venice Biennale, and the Busan Biennale 2012, as well as at the Moderna Museet (Stockholm), the Museum of Modern Art (New York), the Kestnergesellschaft (Hanover), and Kunsthalle Münster, among others. He teaches at the Akademie der Bildenden Künste München.