А CONVERSATION with Stefania Batoeva, Emanuel Röhss and Yves Scherer

BALCONIA

Several months ago, Swimming Pool opened as a new art space in Sofia. Stefania Batoeva, Emanuel Röhss and Yves Scherer participated in its inaugural exhibition “Balconia”. After the end of the show Viktoria Draganova, curator of the show and founder of Swimming Pool, talked with the artists on issues related to the exhibition, such as transformation, emotions and acting globally.

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When I think back to this first exhibition, “Balconia”, one aspect we haven’t talked about yet but seems to be important in your work is travelling of forms. Take Emma, for example: There is already a set of multiple imaginary versions of one personality that you, Yves, have shown in Basel, London and Berlin within varying settings. In your work, Emanuel, you translate gothic figures into new forms; and in Stefania’s painting there is yet another transfer: one finds Emanuel’s gargoyles on the t-shirts of the girls. There are so many issues at stake: the difference of original and copy, questions related to the physical availability of art and also to an economy of networks.

YS For Emma I feel that she does actually travel, so she gets the history inscribed in her body as it happens with the habitus of any given person. She uses, of course, the relations set by the already existing but constantly shifting global information network as well as these of the real Emma Watson. Each figure gets its own life; for that, I wouldn’t speak about one singular personality even if all figures find birth as an “Emma Watson”. This would also be true for the real Emma when seeing her in all these different situations and movies. And why not regard the documentation of Balconia as paparazzi images that show the adventures of Emma Watson in Sofia? Even if these multiple figures enter certain networks as “Yves’s Emma sculptures” still each of them adds another history and new references to the other ones. Who says that there is only one “original”? I personally have seen many of them.

Then, obviously there is this idea of printing your own Emma at home as a DIY, which was more interesting to me at the beginning as I started the series than it is now. The series has now its own life and audience. This allows me to play on, completely disjoined from the public image of Emma Watson.

ER I think my work has always been about travelling. For sure, it isn’t only about transportation since there is always transformation involved; a shifting of the original form into something rather decayed. This is due to the working method I employ, which is more of a breakdown than copying. Travelling could mean, of course, many different things. It is, for instance, how I gather most material I work with. It also means discovering elements of things in cities and amongst people. Conversely, to stay somewhere means a lot, too. Since I travelled a lot during the last couple of months, I’ve figured out it’s really worth staying somewhere to make work happen. I am also extensively engaged with that studio stuff.

SB The red acid demons on the girls’ T-shirts link to Emanuel’s gargoyles in their thematic as well as symbolic use – both in the domestic L.A. context he extracted them from (where they serve as a symbol of a kind of European gothic cultural heritage) and in their transformation in the world we created in the show. I used these symbols to talk about pushing certain limits of consciousness and the dread mixed with pleasure that comes with that. The red demons spread into becoming the faces of the girls, then they bounce across the room to Emanuel’s gargoyle which face them and the red glow coming from Yves’s Emma in the closet… I guess you can see that as an intricate economy of networks, or an interconnectivity that operates as a larger force.

But yes, I take subjects on board all the time, they come into the paintings and mix with older stuff, and this results in something new for me which is by combination transformed. And yes, there’s definitely a travelling of forms, too, as the subjects I deal with shift. I guess all the works in their progression form a context that my practice occupies; life/experience is in there. This is also very much related to other artists I look at and talk to.

There is also an issue related to emotions: Yves deals with emotions that emerge in the digital space, such as falling in love, for example. Stefania, your painting develops as an imaginary space where characters move in and out. At one point you said that they have been carried by euphoria. It seems like emotions organize the pictorial space but is there a context or situation in fact you relate to?

SB I work around the limits of behaviour and experience and I’m naturally attracted by situations and contexts in which this happens, where stuff gets weird as a result of a skewing of the mind, for example euphoria. This informs my work, but not necessarily in a very straightforward way. It is my attitude that generates the imagery on the canvas; I think my vision is skewed and weird when I paint.

I just did a residency in a remote area of Brazil where various factors entered the work, like this nearby hippie settlement that was a mix of uptight orderliness and total magical madness. The coast was full of little crabs amongst plastic bottles, washed up by the ocean; there was also this party surf town six or so miles away. All this stuff was instrumental.

During the exhibition, sometimes, I felt a dream-like atmosphere on the roof; but also in regard to the art: there is something romantic about this exhibition.

SB There was a floaty feeling up there, partly because it is on the roof but also because of the work all three of us make. The various pieces were interwoven, they talked to each other and maybe were transformed because of that. Inserted into the domestic context of the space they went even further. I see this as an economy of networks that is experienced on a more subliminal, dreamy level. Darkness, too, was part of the atmosphere and, for me, that was a good contradiction to the summery vacation starting point of the show.

And people liked to spend time there, most of the visitors stayed for rather a long time, looking both at art and at the remote mountains.

YS This has to do with the question about the actual function of art. I think it’s interesting what Niklas Luhmann proposes in his book on Social Systems. Art, as a system among others, needs to serve a purpose for other systems and for the social system as a whole. Among other functions he speaks about the fact that art serves as a response or answer to “the problem of free time” in our society, which I think is an interesting approach to it.

“Balconia” (a title that Yves initially suggested) means to spend the vacation at home, on your own balcony. I would suggest that this also means transformation of your own way of living, instead of consumption through traveling. For me it was interesting to start the space by making a point about transformation, and why not transformation through art?

YS I’m not quite sure whether “Balconia” means transformation rather than consumption to me. My interest lies more in the idea of “travelling your mind” – for which reading is a very good example both in the way that it still nourishes from a concept of consumption but also brings a transformation. Art acts quite the same, meaning it is as much about transformation as it is about consumption. “Balconia”, however, doesn’t mean to me taking yourself out of a capitalist realm; in fact, you keep consuming in the same way as at any resort. What interests me most is the fact that through the development of social networks you don’t really have to physically travel anymore as virtual reality trips – that are of equal quality to any physical trip – seem just one step away. Again, it is like reading literature: dreaming of, and virtually travelling to, places is a much more economic, rational and even time-optimizing way to travel and experience.

ER For me, transformation has to do with how the material I get excited about becomes a source for my work. For example real people, who get transformed into a more fictional form and by this clarify, for the audience as well as for myself, what I found interesting about them. I also find the language of decoration fascinating, especially the bizarre or obscure side of it. A couple of days ago, we went to the opening of a new spa in Korea Town here in LA. The place was packed with these new-school kitty decorations according to some fusion idea about oriental aesthetics. They were both exciting and easy to exaggerate. What I basically do is pull something away from its source, but I also transform it. It’s never like a readymade.

Emanuel, in the context of “Balconia” you assumed the role of a “curator of taste” so as to select and install objects with different status – your work, old pottery, modernist Bulgarian art. Eventually you called the large installation around the pool “Possessiveness”. Tell me more about how you interrelate layers of history of the space with the aesthetic meaning of these very different objects. Are there certain liberties or restrictions within the role of the artist-curator?

ER This was indeed an interesting experience. I’ve been thinking about curating quite a bit lately, and all the questions raised in the “Artist as Curator” in Mousse feel very topical. I don’t want to assume the role of a curator, but what I did for “Balconia” in terms of re-arranging found or appropriated material anew was very interesting to me and makes sense for my practice at large. This can also happen with some images stamped on a canvas, but also by using you father’s clay objects and Perspex plinths in a way they would not come into use otherwise. My gallery was confused as they received the pdfs of the show. They asked me how all that new work had emerged and what they where supposed to do with it. ”Nothing” I said, “it won’t be there in a couple of weeks”. In regard to the history, well, I think it was definitely important to understand something about the history both of the property we where working in and your father’s collection of objects. To understand what agendas those things carried and what they could do in relation to the work I brought, the other guys’ work, and the presentational strategy employed.

Yves, how does life continue beyond the digital? If “Emma” spreads as simulacrum, what is its emanation in Sofia indeed?

YS For me it is interesting to think about the relation between the digital file and singularity. While we have only one file, we do get different material manifestations of it. Maybe we could compare this to some extent with the genotype-phenotype distinction in genetics. This would mean that the physical is more alive than the digital and that the digital is frozen as it hasn’t changed since the beginning and it won’t change when it travels. As in the genetic code, so in “Emma”. However, once it materializes, it can get scratches even if handled carefully. There are always issues, which are exactly the incidents that give me the feeling of the figures being alive.

To me it is hard to define the geography of Swimming Pool, whether it is in Sofia or a globally acting off-space; probably it is somewhere in-between.

SB For me, the show had a few active ingredients. One was the dialogue between us: it could have happened anywhere in the world. In fact it started before we even got to Sofia, we brought our interests pretty solidly to the show, but knowing that we would be working with a found domestic environment. So the second ingredient was the reaction to this environment, and in Emanuel’s case the selection from, and work with, your father’s collection. The space as a new art centre already felt quite autonomous and settled, and will probably exist sort of globally, which of course includes the scene it is set in.

ER I still know too little about Sofia to tell how it relates to other cities I know better. Its mechanism in the global art scene seemed very peripheral and it felt there are not many contemporary art shows. I’ve shown in some other peripheral places before, but in Sofia it seems there is an audience with a rage for this kind of stuff. I sympathize with this initiative; I must say, however, I am not interested in working as a kind of enlightenment for supposedly unknowing people. I think the peripheral position can be facilitated even more forcefully to draw public attention to projects like “Balconia”.

 

(19 August 2015)