Lene Berg and Jacob Wren
In 2008, shortly after discovering her work, I wrote a text about Lene Berg for C Magazine entitled “Glad the CIA Is Immoral,” focusing on her project Gentlemen & Arseholes (2007)1 and how it spoke directly to so many of my ongoing concerns about art, how art may or may not become political. The text ended by going a bit over-the-top, with the last line reading: “Lene Berg is the artist I have been waiting for all of my life.”2
In 2011, Lene and I collaborated on the project Big Brother Where Art Thou?, a piece that took place entirely on Facebook, combining reflections on George Orwell and his work with research into how the state security apparatus uses social media to monitor the lives of those who use it. Each day for one week we sat at our respective computers—Lene in Berlin, me in Montreal—and talked on Skype as we posted material on these themes in response to each other’s posts. The Big Brother Where Art Thou? Facebook page still exists, an archive of a moment in time before the recent NSA scandal broke, a period in which the possibility that governments might use Facebook to infiltrate the lives of its users still seemed more like vague Orwellian rumours than reality.
It is worth noting that Lene Berg often takes a historical footnote as the source material for her projects and employs her ensuing research to reveal paradoxes and gaps in how we see history and its relation to current predicaments; for example, how an anti-communist discourse promoting modernist artistic freedom laid the groundwork for our current, considerably less free cultural field. Her work suggests that consensus views of politics, history, sexuality, etc., are often misleading, and that they reveal considerably more in what they exclude—in how they leave things out—than they are able to tell us about the machinations of the world or what happened in the past.
Jacob Wren – When I first discovered your work what struck me most was how concretely you addressed the relation between art and politics. I was wondering, since you address it quite often, if you have some general thoughts about how art and politics relate. And if your feelings around these questions changed at all in and around the Stalin by Picasso (2008) scandals,3 in which your project examining a single 1953 drawing that Pablo Picasso made of Joseph Stalin (a project that consisted of a video, a series of drawings, and three public banners) had its banners unexpectedly removed—I believe we can say censored—by the presenting institutions in both Oslo and New York.
Lene Berg – There is no clear line between art and politics. But the relationship between the two is not static and it is not always easy to spot or to define. It is full of contradictions. It changes. It can also be very specific for certain situations, individuals, or institutions.
One of my starting points for the project Gentlemen & Arseholes was the feeling that I lived in a free world, but that, at the same time, there were very strict and definite limits to that freedom. The problem was, and is, that these limits are often so ingrained that they are not perceived as limits, but rather they are regarded as laws of nature. In the beginning of the project I was stunned by how manipulatively art and philosophy were used during the Cold War by the CIA and its allies. At the same time this confirmed that there is power in these fields. The beauty is that artistic power is different from political power, even if at certain times they can collide. Artistic power is about spreading ideas, and no one controls the impact of a film, a text, or an image completely—even when one funds them.
What happened with Stalin by Picasso confirmed in many ways and on many levels just how contentious—in this sense, how powerful—art can be, but the force of the reactions against it was much stronger than I could ever have imagined. The visual illiteracy of some of the criticism shocked me. Since then, I more and more have the feeling that we in the so-called West, or in the former West, live in a quite restricted and narrow cultural environment. What is discussed within an art context, in terms of what an image represents, for instance, has not reached a broader public and therefore has very little bearing outside of the art scene (for lack of a better word). Images printed in a newspaper or art shown in a public space are still to a high degree read as propaganda or illustrations. The public and the press can in general not deal with complexities or ambiguities. This is a democratic problem as it promotes stupidity, ignorance, and manipulation.
I find the definition of “political art” problematic. As I see it, artworks that address political issues are not necessarily more political than other works; they often just look critical or political, like a style or a genre. A lot of left-wing art, for example, is merely reproducing ideas that are accepted and acclaimed in the social circles of the artists and curators distributing them. As they mainly illustrate established points of view the potential impact is minimal. I do not wish to illustrate my opinion in my work—on the contrary, I try to challenge and question my views. At the same time, there is of course a relationship between how I think and what I produce. There are no clear lines. And one has to remember that “art” and “politics” are on one level only words, two abstract categories that do not necessarily describe reality very accurately.
Wren – There was the incredible irony that when Picasso first made the drawing of Stalin, it upset people because it was seen as tarnishing the image or memory of Stalin, but when you showed the exact same drawing in Oslo and New York people were upset because it was seen to praise him. These are both highly charged reactions. I wonder if a strong, immediate emotional reaction to an image might short circuit a more nuanced reading. That is, if some of the same people who denounced your work might also be able to read images in a more complex way in other circumstances. Your work often heads directly for societal sore spots: political control of art, sex work, etc. You want to be in precarious territory, but once there you provide such a complex, nuanced perspective. How do you see this dynamic between emotionally charged material and a more critical view?
Berg – As a matter of fact, I did not at all foresee that Stalin by Picasso would evoke such strong feelings, which in hindsight might seem naive. I thought some people would be provoked or annoyed by the fact that Picasso had made a portrait of Stalin and that this possibly would lead to discussions around art, independence, post-WWII battles, and maybe even about the myth of the lonely genius. But it turned out that Stalin was the problem, more than Picasso. And it was in fact not so much the image of Stalin that was a problem, even if that also created some of the anger, but his role in Western history. No one wanted that history back on the table. In other words I hit a sore spot, but not exactly the one I had aimed for.
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About the Authors
Born in Oslo, Norway, Lene Berg works in an arena where text, film, and photography alternate, integrate, or function simultaneously. She exposes and plays with clichés; structures fact and fantasy in opposition or in duality; and struggles with sexual politics while searching for new forms of narration. Berg’s work flows freely between art and cinema, with recent works including the films Kopfkino (2012) and Dirty Young Loose (2013). Kopfkino won Best Documentary at the 8th Annual Pornfilmfestival in Berlin and was nominated for the Nordic:DOX Award in Copenhagen. Dirty Young Loose (2013) was exhibited at the Norwegian Pavilion, Venice Biennale, 2013, for which Berg was awarded the inaugural Lorck Schive Art Prize. You can find excerpts from some of Lene Berg’s films online at http://fillip.ca/epsu.
Jacob Wren makes literature, performances, and exhibitions. His books include Unrehearsed Beauty (1998), Families Are Formed through Copulation (2007), Revenge Fantasies of the Politically Dispossessed (2010), and the novel Polyamorous Love Song (BookThug, 2014), a finalist for the 2013 Fence Modern Prize in Prose. As Co-artistic Director of Montreal-based interdisciplinary group PME-ART, he has co-created the performances En français comme en anglais, it’s easy to criticize (1998), the HOSPITALITÉ/HOSPITALITY series including Individualism Was a Mistake (2008) and The DJ Who Gave Too Much Information (2011), and their most recent project, Every Song I’ve Ever Written (2013).