Mikkel Carl is a Danish artist based in Copenhagen. He has recently opened We Are All Workers, a solo show at Kunsthal NORD in Aalborg, Denmark. In this interview, I have discussed with Mikkel Carl several works that are included in the show – with the help of the photographic reference – along with other issues regarding his practice and some post-technological aesthetical impressions.
I would like to start our discussion with the installation of the work We Are All Workers, which also gives the title to the exhibition at the Kunsthal NORD. The slogan is taken from a LEVI’S campaign, however, seeing it installed in the entrance hall of Nordkraft, it also recalls the image of some kind of workers union statement from the beginning of the past century.
In 1853 Levi Strauss launched denim as tough work wear for miners, farmers and, well, cowboys I suppose (in Denmark we still call jeans ‘cowboy pants’) marking the transition from an agrarian to an industrial age. And now having leaped into the era of (digitalized) information, people still wear them, as much as they ever did. Stripping the statement WE ARE ALL WORKERS off its elaborate “worn out” typeface used in the advertisements, and placing it on the facade of Kedelhallen (the room used to house enormous kettles when the building was a power plant) I aim at several issues, that are (re)surfacing as a consequence of the transformation from an industrial town to an information and education culture, which the town of Aalborg – along with so many other places in the Western World – is undergoing these years; something, which the 30,000 m2 cultural centre, where Kunsthal NORD is located, is itself a significant expression of.
This includes a radical alteration of the notion of ‘work’. “8 hours of work, 8 hours of leisure, and 8 hours of rest” was a legendary slogan launched by the Danish Social Democratic Party in 1904. A battle won long ago and once and for all, or so we thought. Do you know anyone who works only 8 hours a day, including posting latest achievements on a variety of social media?
You are right! Maybe, it is because this ‘radical alteration’ of the notion of work has kind of blurred its limits. In this exhibition, you have literally broken through the separation between the exhibition space and other working spaces of the museum with A thing is a hole in the thing it is not.
No I haven’t! If you look at the caption of the work it lists a number of building materials along with “doorway in partition wall”. So what I have done is blinding the existing walls where there were already – due to the space’s previous function as a power plant or made as part of its transformation into an art institution – large passages leading onto the next room. Only then did I punch some big holes breaking through to “the other side”: the exhibition space furnished in a director’s office. Something similar goes for the “storage.” Between the two exhibition spaces there was a strange half wall just asking for me to put in a large window and a door. And you know what, the greatest moment of installing this show was when we were putting all the tools, bubble wrap, and left-over materials “back” in “storage”, not only tiding up the place but actually making a new work while we were at it. As you can see it’s not a matter of exposing something hidden nor is it pure theatrics; a simulacrum. The director and his assistant might have to look very much like they’re writing emails and working on the catalogue, but in fact they are writing those emails and that text for the catalogue – right there in front of the audience.
If not a simulacrum, is it still a kind of conceptual performative act?
I know this word has long since been buried alongside postmodernism, and perhaps I didn’t make myself quite clear. Simulation is the imitation of the operation of a real-world process or system over time whereas simulacra are copies that depict things that either had no original to begin with, or that no longer have an original. Or to use the words of Baudrillard himself: “The simulacrum is never that which conceals the truth— it is the truth, which conceals that there is none.”
What about the other installations? Factory Windows are Always Broken seems less “performative”.
It may sound odd, but it was only once the show was up that I realized that a lot of the works fall within what we might call the simulation–simulacrum continuum, using but also staging the use of illusion on several levels: an endlessly rotating power drill stuck in the wall – (Made in China), 2009-2015; a fluorescent light tube has “fallen down” turning into a circular one – Halo, 2015 (2012); folded (an unfolded) pieces of A4 paper (actually they are spray-painted sheets of aluminium) tossed here and there – Good Ideas are Bad Ideas, 2015; smoke coming out of what appears to be the building’s ventilation system, but is in fact a huge galvanized pipe that I put up connecting it to a smoke machine set on a timer – The sea is not cruel, the clouds do not choke the sky, information does not want to be free, 2015; ten ”abstract paintings” consisting of stretched 2nd hand moving blankets collected from various commercial galleries, public art institutions and artist run spaces, where they have been wrapped around now absent art objects – Impression, 2015; cracked windows, and also what appears to be a bullet hole(!) made by using transparent adhesive stickers.
I have perhaps a silly question on this last work you mentioned: why not just actually break the windows of the museum in Factory Windows are Always Broken, 2015?
Breaking all the windows in an art institution is really not a bad idea; it’s just a different work entirely. What I’m interested in is not so much the (violent) act itself, but rather the space between either/or and neither/nor. Like in the case of the aluminium blobs on the staircase, which instead of minimalist grandstanding/post-minimal territorial pissing is perhaps more of a Richard Serra 2.0. The confrontational battle between artist and institution (the historical avant-garde and to some extent the neo avant-garde) shifted the ground in favour of the latter. And the Pyrrhic victory of relational aesthetics in the 90s eventually turned museums into blockbuster centres of infotainment and beacons of the so-called experience economy. To me, an artistic strategy plotting these two approaches, which led to the current fait accompli, against each other seems one viable option. I call it ‘negative affirmation’ as opposed to ‘affirmative negation’.
Then, what about the titles of your works?
The caption is one place for concept and materiality to come together. The title itself helps the viewers understand in what direction the artist has intended his associative flight of thought to go, both clarifying and further staging the physical objects. This has been the case since Duchamp (I always get really frustrated when a student claims: “The work has no title” and I have to explain that this is simply not an option and that Untitled is the most heavily invested in title there is.).
Every time I come across a word or a small combination of these that somehow seem interesting to me, I write it down. And it’s only when I manage to combine the physical object I’m producing with such words, that the work becomes a work. As a logical consequence the listing of materials has also become an essential tool in this narration. In a work called Glorious Bastard, 2013, I made a glory hole in a double bed that has the most peculiar design. A partition wall makes it into a horizontal bunk, not saving any room, but perhaps producing some arousing alienation from whoever you share the bed with. In this case I believe it to be essential that the checklist says “Donald Judd double bed” rather than “bed” or “wood and foam” even. Sometimes – it could be years later – I realize that a work has been given a title that isn’t quite right, so I try to rename it.
It seems to me that in a lot of the works from the exhibition We Are All Workers, as well as in some previous works, there is a post-technological – perhaps post-informational – sense of decline or even ruin, yet at the same time a strong aestheticization of these objects. I was wondering how you feel these two (apparently) opposite aspects can be associated?
When referring to a break not just from the virtues of the industrial revolution – primarily the teleological understanding of history called ‘progress’ – but even going beyond our society of information (where this strictly linearly sense of time still lingers on), I take it you are referring mainly to my anodized Apple PowerBook G4 Titanium laptops; state of the art technological hardware used to fuel almost every aspect of the experience economy and now only a decade later they are back in a show room hovering on glass pedestals – customized ad absurdum and utterly useless. Even though my reason for picking this exact model had to do with the anodizing process (the 2004 PowerBook is the only one built in titanium) and even though our look upon these objects will of course soon change, I really like that the computers are not brand new (because even if they were, it wouldn’t be for long) yet they are not vintage either. They are just a little too old.
It’s a great misunderstanding that information society (as we used to call it before the Internet kicked in) is a post-industrial one. It’s not all clouds and swipes. All the stuff we purchase online is just being produced and shipped from places we have never heard of. Apple has been among the first to acknowledge this fact by (ironically?) labelling their products: Designed in California. Actually, I’ve had a bit of a hard time connecting the anodized titanium paintings – the readymade aspect of the computers did help – to my general practice, at least beyond the obvious fact that I’m interested in paintings as installational and discursive objects, and therefore tend to produce them without the use of paint. So, I’m rather grateful that you have pointed out this dimension of Ruinenwert (ruin value).
Finally, I would like to know what other projects you are working on and exhibitions you have coming up?
I have sort of a solo exhibition opening in a couple of weeks and since I last answered this question its title has changed from Hard Candy to This ain’t no abstract painting, I just wanted to fuck you. The paintings are made squeezing acrylic paint and water through the type of carpet you normally cover the floor with to protect it when painting the walls. It’s a kind of felt made from old yarn covered with transparent plastic on the backside preventing the absorbed paint from seeping through. Applied to odd sized custom made stretchers it looks like leftover pieces of marble (think Sam Moyer paintings gone wrong). I’ve conceived these paintings to fit various positions within our house – primarily the dining room and living room – much like when a gallery presents works in an office/showroom setting, arranging them alongside nice furniture to make it easier for the potential buyer to picture the work @home.
I also have a solo show at Formic, which is a small exhibition space in Copenhagen run by Danish artist David Stjernholm. Since, it’s mainly for ants (a 25x15x15 cm glass cube placed between an actual ant farm and the arena where they pick up water and food), I’m going to treat them to the cut off and slightly decomposed ear from Blue Velvet – recreated in marzipan.
We Are All Workers on view at Kunsthal NORD through June 21.