Tuesday, 14 October 2008


Anouk De Clercq, Building, 2003, b/w stereo 15', Anton Aeki (music), Joris Cool (animation)

This conversation with Anouk De Clercq took place in Foyles cafe on Charing Cross Road, London on October 2nd 2008. The previous night she had shown her film Building, along with work by the three other members of the Brussels based collective Auguste Orts, at Tate Modern. With each artist showing individual works, the Q&A had prompted much discussion about the precise workings and purpose of the collective, and this was also the starting point of our conversation... 

ANOUK: ...Every time we have to talk about this collective - we always look at each other, we are a bit like rabbits in headlights because, I don't know, we are starting to find out what it is because it's only been a year and a half and it's only now through writing these letters to each other that we really go to this level of really talking to each other and really trying to see what the other is all about. Before that it was much more inside our heads and not really said. We felt that there were affinities but we had never had the time to sit down and talk about it so it is really amazing that we have. Then there is the pragmatic level of joining effort.

DAVID: Some of the questions last night seemed like rebukes for the way you were up front about being a collective for administrative reasons to do with arts funding, rather than having utopian, collective goals.

ANOUK: We don't pretend to be anything. Maybe it's the time for something - within visual arts it's not so common that people would start together and join effort. It's much more of an individual approach. It may be related to living in Brussels. In Brussels you have a community of artists coming from all over. So in the Manon [de Boer] film [Two Times 4'33" (2008), which involves a slow pan around the audience for a performance in Brussels of the John Cage piece] the audience includes dancers and musicians - there is this mix. Last night was the first time I saw that film.

DAVID: Seeing Building last night, I wanted to start by exploring this distinct visual language in all your films. What for you does that language consist of?

ANOUK: Well it's changing. Most of the work on the website - like Building - dates from a couple of years ago. Now I'm moving away from screen based work only. But back then I was coming from a classic, experimental film background, New American Cinema, Anthology film Archive, all that. Then with Whoosh I got into 3D animation and that was because I wanted to make text visual - visually interesting - but also keep it readable. I wanted to animate the text. 

Whoosh, 2001, b/w stereo 12', Anton Aeki (music).

But when I got into the 3D animation area I was so intrigued by this empty box. You have to build something so it is very close to architecture. So this idea of empty space that you have to fill in, that became a core element of the work. Also, I am intrigued by this idea of other places and wanting to build other places - be it a building or a landscape. 

DAVID: And that empty space on the computer - does it have a particular feel or potential or emotion for you?

ANOUK: The strange thing during the process of making a new piece is that you start from this empty landscape or space and slowly you fill it up and build something. But I want the space to be empty enough so that people can still wander around and have their gaze dwell in that space. Not completely fill it. So it is empty space, filling it up, and taking it away again, remaining with a concentrated presence of very little. Something like that. You start from emptiness and you end up with not so much more (laughs). Emptiness again but a different kind of emptiness. 

But now I try to relate this landscape or this space that is in the image, to the space that is around the image. So in more recent work the projected image is just one of the elements of the whole piece. I think I would say I build environments now. I wouldn't consider myself a video artist anymore. There's been this evolution from a really experimental film base, 16mm and super 8, to video and 3-D animation, virtual spaces, and then to building environments, with video, music, text, and with architectural elements. 

One of the recent pieces I made was called Echo. What I did was make an echo of the actual space in the museum. So there was a screen for which I made an image - a mirror image in 3D of this space, that also transformed the actual space, obviously. It was a very large, white cube space twice this size [of the Foyles bookstore cafe] and I made a revolving door for the opening, as if the wall continued but you could push it around. In the door was a speaker - the door was a medium for sound. 

The screen was really big and there were four vertical windows. I made a video image of four windows with  a landscape behind the windows - a mirror of the actual windows in the space - so there was a dialogue there. All around the space - thirty five metres of wall - there was a sitting bench I made according to a rhythm, a pattern. The bench continued even behind the screen. All around the space were speakers...

Three images above: Echo, 2008, b/w surround sound loop, Anton Aeki (music), Tom kluyskens (animation). Photo copyright Kristien Daem.

That's what I mean by building an environment: spatial sound, video, architectural, all one big thing. That's what I mean by moving away from the projected image.   

DAVID: Do you have a conscious sense of choreographing the experience people have in that space?

ANOUK: It started from this drawing in an old French magazine of the 1930's of people in a boat listening to a concert on the radio. I was very intrigued by the looks on their faces, by seeing people listening. That's what I wanted to see. So I built this environment because I wanted people to listen, and I wanted to look at how people would give this attention to listening in a  museum. 

The whole spatial sensation of the sound was very important - there were thirteen hidden speakers. Writing the sound for the space was very important. The stories that I heard after and during the show: people would go to the space to be really away, like people would go to a chapel. They were completely inside themselves and very quiet and very.. it's like these in-between spaces, going to a sauna, a cinema, a museum, or an elevator. Those are the spaces that interest me, the spaces that I like building too. So you could say other spaces but I would rather have in-between spaces.

Installation views of Building: (Top) platform contemporary art centre, Istanbul. Photo: Geert Goiris. Bottom: on the video window of the concertgebouw.

DAVID: You talked last night about films to listen to. How does that inform what kind of visual image you create?

ANOUK: Well I think in my earlier work you could see sound as a way to help look at images. Like how they use soundtracks in classical cinema. The sound is used to make the flow from one shot to another easier or something. But in Echo the image is like a resting point, a focus point to be able to listen. So that makes me, at least in that last piece I did, less and less is happening in the image. Its much more like a space where you could just be. It's not something - there's nothing that I impose. It's like a focus point to be able to listen and wander around in your own head. That's it. 

Before there would be more like a narrative flow. In Building - I consider that as being one of my most narrative pieces. It's called Building which is a building and also a verb, so I really wanted to tell this story of architecture which is that you have this line and then you have this surface, then you have a volume and then you see space and then you see that it is an actual space. That is very narrative. Now I am not so interested in that anymore. I am more interested in images that have no beginning and no end, that have a continuous flow, being part of a bigger ensemble of an environment. So it means that the image imposes less. I don't know if that is the right word.

Kernwasser Wunderland, 2004, b/w stereo 14', Eavesdropper (music), Joris Cool (animation)

DAVID: My experience of Building is this balance between abstract shapes and patterns, then points where it becomes representational. That tension between establishing one condition and then immediately wanting to get away from it, and so on. 

ANOUK:  That's the whole play. I draw from reality. You could say in a 3D program you have almost a dictionary of forms. A library of forms, that's what I want to say. So if you want to have a tree in your 3D landscape you can look up and there's a whole bunch of trees. But sometimes I take the form of that library but I completely dismantle it. 

Kernwasser Wunderland, 2004, b/w stereo, 14', Eavesdropper (music), Joris Cool (animation)

For instance in Kernwasser Wunderland you have these flower like shapes. Well that is from the library of the 3D program. It is a palm tree that we put upside down so the leaves are in the ground. What you see is the root of the palm tree. We made the trunk very thin and elegant but what you see and think is maybe like a flower shape is actually the root of the palm tree... 

It's like fooling around, playing around with reality, I don't know. It's not only the play between the remains of reality and abstraction, but it is also the whole play between 2D and 3D. In building there's constantly a tension between is this a surface or is there a depth of field - as there is also a friction between the sound and the image. Sometimes it would be synch and sometimes it wouldn't. 

DAVID: Are you drawn to using the program because of its restriction?

ANOUK: I feel there's no restriction. I used to film and shoot footage but I like this idea of having a palette of possibilities, almost like you would have a palette of different kind of colors to paint, and then by pushing the right buttons and sometimes pushing the wrong buttons... the machine surprises me a lot. 

Portal, 2002, b/w stereo 14', Anton Aeki (music), Joris Cool (animation)

It's a constant dialogue between me and the machine. I push a lot of wrong buttons (laughs) and then something comes up that wasn't my intention. An image comes up, or a form comes up, and I think I wouldn't be able to think of that. An example would be the bird in Portal. Actually I had this other shape in my head, but pushed some wrong buttons, and something like that came up, and that made me think of another possibility. It's a constant dialogue, keeping it open enough. I do work with drawn storyboards but it's a dialogue. It changes all the time.

DAVID: And images like the birds or the mountains offer a very particular blend of the artificial and the natural, human and machine -

ANOUK: Of course I am very, er, influenced or something by Japanese drawings of Hokusai and Hiroshige, these very minimal drawings of landscape, a couple of lines and shww! you have a landscape, you can just dwell in it. Also not so much the aesthetic quality but more like the feel of romantic paintings of Caspar David Friedrich and this whole idea of wanting to surrender to an environment. I'm very grateful that those guys were there.

DAVID: But lots about those examples, of course, is very different to your own work. Aren't those artists in lots of ways offering examples of things you want to avoid?

ANOUK: I guess it started off... (looks through files on lap top)... I'm looking for a good example. Take Portal. That was made as answer to a question of a curator. He wanted people in different disciplines to make a secret garden and make it public. So I wanted to map my secret garden - an inner world. I wanted to portray my inner world in sound and image. Why I would use the digital: I feel that through abstracting these emotions, also this whole digital approach is more distant - it's not me and a pen, it's not human - there's a machine in-between - I hope that my inner world becomes more open. It becomes like a public park. From a secret garden to a public park.  

Because there is this machine, this software in-between, it becomes just a little bit more distant, it becomes less mine, it becomes universal, or like a group experience. I feel most comfortable working with 3D animation to have this openness because otherwise if I would draw or write it the space would be too closed. 

DAVID: And part of that open space is a real co-presence of extremes. A sense of apocalypse, flare out, and entropy, yet also something more pastoral and contemplative, generative -

ANOUK: It's very conscious. I'm not so much interested in apocalypse per se, but in these in-between spaces. In Portal there's an edge of that world - you glide off the end of this world we created in 3D into nothingness. In  Building at the end - that's my favorite moment. There's this whole trip through the building and at the end you go into a blackness which is not a fade out, it's absolutely not a fade out, it's about going into another space, because coming from where you have been in the building this darkness is a space - it's not just a black surface. That's my favorite moment.

Again, I think you could relate it to my fascination for in-between spaces: Alice in Wonderland falling into another world; going to a sauna, an elevator, where time and space stops for a bit. A chapel. Weightlessness. I think those spaces are very healing. In Echo looking at the faces of the people listening and being in that environment they were very relaxed I have to say. They were inside themselves. It was beautiful to look at. I was very happy to be able to see that happening. That was my film. I wanted to be able to look at the people. I think it's healing. I like to be in these spaces.

DAVID: Healing in what sense? Calm? Peacefulness?

ANOUK: Something like that. Being very safe, comfortable, confident. Yes, comfortable spaces. 

Petit Palais, 2002, b/w stereo 15', Anton Aeki (music), Joris Cool (animation)

DAVID: Which could relate back to your interest in constructivism. I was thinking how your work used the language of constructivism, but where is the utopian revolutionary politics? It's about calm and healing. 

ANOUK: It's also about.... If you're thinking about constructivism then I think about my - I don't know what you'd call it - heroes - which is Malevich. Or Rothko. I just try to reduce and go to some sort of essence and remove everything that is anecdotal but just try to go to the core of things. That's also maybe why using the 3D animation: I have an empty box. I am building something. I take away a lot because I want to have this concentrated presence of very little. 

Nothing too clutterly. If you have a blank space and you have this one black line as a viewer you have a lot of room left for your own mental projections. In Bachelard's The Poetics of Space - which is my book! - he says that for a writer it's not your talent to construct beautiful sentences that is important but much more your ability to withdraw enough to give space to the reader. That's what you do when you read. You have this whole mental world that you construct from reading someone's words. Your talent is revealed by withdrawing - a talent for withdrawal - and not by filling up worlds. 

I like that whole play. I think that's your job as an artist: to balance between that - portray your inner world and at the same time it's a gesture towards other people so you have to be able to take away to let other people in. So this whole - it's a balance act. That's work. It's very conscious.

DAVID: I was interested in End, the theatre piece you've been working on, partly because I'm curious what happens when you re-introduce a body into this virtual space. What happens?  

ANOUK: This piece was a collaboration between me and Kris Verdonck, a Belgian performance artist. He asked me to do a video piece for a performance. I'm always a bit skeptical. There's a lot of shows that have video in them and I never really know why. It's a kind of fashion, I guess, but it's seldom that I say "okay, that's why they had video in that show." But I really appreciate his work so I wanted to do this effort of thinking how it might work. 

We linked my image to one of the performers. One of the ten figures was pulling a rope. As he was pulling he also pulled the image which was a mixture of 3D and films of clouds. Clouds, smoke, blackness, that kind of feel.

So he pulled clouds basically.  The clouds moved really slowly from one side to another. The projected image was twelve metres wide and three metres high. It was very panoramic - really like old days of cinema, old days of theatre, with this idea of having a panoramic background and all the characters in front. He made the clouds move as he moved. You could make this connection with Atlas carrying the weight of the world, with the worker, almost the Russian mine worker, that kind of thing. But at the same time he was pulling clouds. I think it worked. The presence of the image was very organic linking in to this one character and the theme of the play. It became more and more black. 

End, 2008, video for performance, Kris Verdonck (concept), Stefaan Quix (soundscape), Luc Shaltin (lightscape). First performed Kunstenfestivaldesarts, Brussels, Kaaitheatre, May 9-13, 2008. Performance photo: copyright Academie Anderlecht - Catherine Antoine.

DAVID: I imagine the flux and variability of live performance is a contrast to the control, order and solitude of working the animation program on your laptop?

ANOUK: In 2002 I did a live video performance. I come from a music background. I thought, jesus, this work I'm doing is all so controlled! I want to see what it does to me if I do it live. It was a disaster. (Laughs) I worked with two musicians and they were making music and I had to play with the images. It didn't work for me at all.

DAVID: What was wrong?

ANOUK: I had this.. I still had this narrative flow I wanted to follow. I felt that every form had to have its time to evolve and grow, then grow into something else. Sometimes I felt I had to move too quickly. I had to impose an evolution on the movement of the form. I didn't want to do that. I wanted to give it the right amount of time. The musicians had to laugh. We had fun - God! they said to me, this is really not your thing. I was so miserable after each show. I like to give things its proper time.