unpublished interview with Germaine Koh, February 2004
by Chantal Rousseau, <firstname.lastname@example.org>
5 Questions for Germaine Koh Relating to Conceptual Art
Chantal Rousseau: You have referred to yourself as not a "strictly" conceptual artist. Granted there many definitions conceptual art; how do you see yourself deviating from it? Germaine Koh: While I suppose one can define conceptual art in various ways, and while conceptualism appears everywhere these days, I suppose I'm trying to distance myself specifically from the notion that conceptualism equals some kind of abstract or theoretical ideation. You'll note that my works are always “embodied” propositions, and I hope that their physical forms provide a route into the ideas. This is important for me because my thinking really involves musing about things out there in the real world, how things circulate, what they can tell us about how we behave, the kinds of residue we leave around us. It's important to me to make use of objects or materials that already, inevitably, carry with them associations. Also, I think one can think of "classic" conceptualism as an apotheosis of "art about art"; in other words, propositions that are really concerned with redefining the limits of what art can be, and I have to admit that I have very little interest in such debates. CR: Various streams of conceptual art in the 1960s and 1970s were interested in pursuing and creating alternative art distribution systems to the existing institutions. Much of your work functions in the "real world" outside of the gallery, and therefore opens it up to an accidental audience. Can you talk about what is important to you about having your work exist outside of the specific art gallery context? GK: If this doesn't seem too disingenuous (because it is bit of a deliberately innocent stance), I will say that it is because my work isn't about art. I do want to insist that it's about the ideas and reflections that arise out of the things I make or situations I set up. I'm also aware that the entire context in which a piece is encountered contributes to its meaning, so the placement of my work in the real world (I use the term without quotation marks, because it does feel like a concrete distinction) is a way of insisting that that is the source material and ultimate background for the ideas in my works. That said, I still do believe in the value of the gallery and the white cube as contexts that provide space for, and signify the importance of, close observation, deliberate attention and all that, and this is always a factor in my decisions whether or not particular works should be designed for gallery space. There is inevitably a different kind of attention (okay, let's call it a distraction) that we have when going about in the real world, but I like to think that that makes it magical or special, and therefore particularly rewarding, when something or other succeeds in piercing through the preoccupations that envelop us in the street. CR: 1960s and 1970s conceptual art was often overtly politically motivated; especially within the context of Latin American. In your practice, interventionist pieces like "Homemaking" (where Germaine constructed human sized spider webs from string in under-used urban sites) , "Occupancy" (using real estate signage and tent fabric to set up temporary shelters), and "Watch" (a performance piece where Germaine sat in a store window during office hours for a week and watched passers-by in an engaged but impassive manner) to name a few, are beautiful and subtle moments of urban resistance. Can you talk about these pieces (or others) and how or if you see contemporary conceptual art functioning as a political tool? GK: I do worry sometimes that the political positioning of my work isn't always evident, so I'm glad you point it out. It can be, I admit, a rather restrained kind of politics that operates in my work. I think my political strategy generally comes down to promoting empathy by emphasizing the kinds of commonalities and shared connections that underlie our activities. Certainly, I have also specifically chosen to give visibility to often-unnoticed activities or forces within a community (survival strategies in "Homemaking" or "Occupancy" or the actions of the gaze in "Watch," for example), and these do reveal a particular leftist and feminist political position. However, more generally, even if this is pretty naive, I also think that there is a kind of activism in insisting on the kinds of "common denominators" that could be sources of community. That is part of what prompts me to try to use very mundane, innocuous types of materials as abstract (i.e. stripped-down) signs for shared concerns, (for example, a volume of water bottles standing for mass historical movements in "En busca del nivel del lago" or the simple wearing-away of a path as an index for unnoticed activity shared by a community of people in "Poll"). I do think that one could see parallels between types of political activity and conceptualism. By this I mean that they can both serve to put forth surprising and innovative ideas and propositions about how we could behave. Good conceptual art and effective politics (and also good advertising, but that's another thing...) can, like a good argument, have the power to convince through the elegance of ideas. In other words, they are (or can be) essentially rhetorical operations. I am also trying to develop a thesis about the similarity between how humour and conceptual art operate, drawing out unsuspected relationships between things, and I think that might also be related to the political potential of conceptualism. CR: I keep going back to this notion of "self effacement" that you have used to describe your work. It reminds me of ideas in early conceptual art and pre-conceptual art, like silence, explored by John Cage, or negation with the “Erased de Kooning Drawing” by Rauschenberg. Ideas concerned with things disappearing, or making the unremarkable visible. Can you talk about why you discuss your practice in these terms? Why do you want to "pass unnoticed"? GK: The notion of anonymity and self-effacement in my work is related to my commitment to process and contingency. It's about accepting both the inevitability of change and the greatness of everything outside of the small things we do individually. I know that sounds terribly corny, and to tell the truth I've never put it so plainly before. I do believe that it is a provocative position to create things that are obviously vulnerable to disappearance and to change, because (I like to think that) it creates situations in which the viewer is forced to consider all kinds of things: how and whether to intervene or preserve the situation, how to act, how to describe it, how to remember. It proposes an immediate attention to the present. Of course, it should also be noted that I'm not talking about my disappearing from this world or renouncing authorship of my work. There are all kinds of ways -- oral history, rumour, documentation, and art history -- in which ideas are preserved and circulate outside the physicality of the work. I have faith in the operations of these social systems, even if I don't have control over them, because they arise out of human nature. CR: One of my favourite pieces of yours is "Sightings" (postcards made from found snapshots). I discovered them for sale at a small press fair in Vancouver when I was living there, and it was like finding this gem, especially as I was interested in tourist paraphernalia and snapshot photography at the time. Can you talk about this piece in terms of the idea of circulation, as much of your work uses and examines systems of exchange and distribution? GK: That piece deals with circulation in a couple ways. Firstly, it creates an intersection between two social currents: the uses of tourist postcards and of snapshots, with all the emotions and conventions associated with each of them. That's a sort of use of social patterns of circulation. But it also was a real, concrete experiment in the circulation of objects in the world. Each postcard is a token of several systems of circulation, mapping various times and places. It records: the situation photographed, the loss of the photograph by some unknown person, my subsequent passage through the same space, the multiplication of the original object through publication, and the subsequent distribution of the published facsimiles in the world. I decided to end the project (which had been an ongoing experiment) when for the first time one of the postcards made its way to one of the people represented. That seemed like a completion of a hypothesis that underlay the piece.