Mark Kremer: Last year, together with the architect Ton Ven-hoeven, you designed the entrance hall of a new police station in Amsterdam. What was the challenge there? To what extent was your design proposal a reaction to the context?
Aernout Mik: A police station is a place with a prescribed function, where a distinct social drama holds sway because it’s where two sections of the population meet: victims or people needing help and the police force. It’s the setting for a more or less established drama. My design for the entrance hall is based on a sandwich structure: the elements are posi-tioned in such a way that the whole conjures up the idea of three different layers one on top of the other. The floor consists of a scaled-down gym floor; the furniture could be described as an antiquated-bureaucratic layer; and the ceiling consists of one continuous plane with a photographic impres-sion of tangled tropical vegetation. The important thing is that the layers run through the entire space so that the division between the people behind and in front of the counter seems to evaporate. Because it houses widely differing ele-ments, the space has a certain dynamism yet at the same time there is a sort of claustro-phobia, for instance in the laby-rinthine ceiling and in the furniture that is rela-tively over-sized. That’s the absurdity of the situation.
MK: The design seems to be based on a set of absurd precepts so that elements are introduced that are over-determined. To what extent were you influenced by the fact that this is an area where visitors are made very much aware of the fact that they are dealing with authority?
AM: I think that my design does indeed reflect the principle of determina-tion that dominates that setting. I’m fascinated that the attempt to regulate people’s behaviour eventually leads to the development of patterns the sense of which can no longer be explained. Not even by the people who are supposed to be doing the regulating. It’s an odd system.
MK: You could say much the same about art institutions.
AM: Yes, except that in a museum or a gallery there’s a com-pletely different presumption, namely that there is no struc-ture.
MK: That there’s freedom…
AM: Yes. Those sorts of establishments claim to be a neutral screen onto which something is projected. They function as a kind of counterpart to the cinema where you are rendered immobile and in black surroundings become an ideal receptor for a film seen all over the world. Here black is replaced by white. The museum is in effect the white screen: an ideal receptor for changing products which can pass from one space to the next. You might be able to move physically through the space but the situation as a whole is based on aesthetic detachment and hence immobili-ty.
MK: An aesthetic detachment, that’s something you detest?
AM: I’m perplexed by situations based on exclusion. Museums and galleries are designated as areas where people experience art and other possibilities are consequently excluded. An exhibition space is so constructed that it can receive any given work of art. That’s the way it has to be, too, because if they’re going to make money and function as a recognizable sign, works of art have to circulate. What I object to is that this stands in the way of the experience of the here and now.
Camiel van Winkel: Do you dislike cinema-going, too?
AM: I find the transition from outside to inside in the cinema too abrupt. The physical immobility that produces bothers me. I’m certainly interested in the dream aspect of the situation but I wish it didn’t involve a loss of physical alertness. I’m more interested in energies that are released in quite differ-ent locations, like airports. The departure hall of an airport is a sort of micro-culture with a logic of its own to which visitors immediately adapt themselves. The same applies to a police station or a moving train. What distinguishes those types of locations is that rules and regulations are visible there in exaggerated form. They’re also typical transit areas where ever-different people are going in and out; that induces a degree of resignation.
CvW: Are you looking for alternative spaces for experiencing art?
AM: No. Because I think there are spaces all over the place. You can even do away with the words `experiencing art’. The point is that I’m someone who’s interested in what is going around me and I question myself about my reactions. The word `art’, you know, is not my primary interest.
MK: Have you always felt like that?
AM: For a while there I was rather object-minded. Then sudden-ly I realized that exhibiting had a significance and dynamism all its own. I came to the tragic realization that one object follows another and that that, to echo Walter Benjamin’s angel, is really a catastrophe of successive moments. An endless stream regulated in white spaces, and I found that prospect too restricted.
CvW: Last year you exhibited a `tableau vivant’ in the `La Vie’ conference centre in Utrecht. The work seemed to based on a theatrical precept, a model for interaction between groups of people. How would you describe the work’s dramatic struc-ture?
AM: It concerned an intervention in a social set-up which took place almost imperceptibly. There was a conference centre that is just as much a micro-culture as an airport. It was an area around a courtyard, screened off from the street, with small rooms where the Dutch `paper’ class comes together for meet-ings. I put people asleep in beds in one of those rooms during office hours and by way of dramatic reduction, set up cages with hamsters. This kindled the dreamlike effect already potential-ly present in the place. There was an artifi-cial order in that building and I gave it extra emphasis. The aspect of artifi-ciality, combined with sleeping, dreaming and addiction occurs elsewhere in my work. I marvel at the effect of anaestheti-zation and intoxication and at the same time I think that it’s a way of getting in touch with collective phenomena.
MK: So you see the daily routine there in the light of anaes-thetization and intoxication?
AM: Yes. But I think everybody is continually submitting to a range of rules, at different times during the day, in differ-ent places and in different ways. That’s intoxica-tion and the intoxication of regulation is a specific kind of intoxication.
CvW: You say that a gallery restricts your freedom of movement but on the other hand the places that interest you – such a conference centre, an airport, a police station – are charac-terized by a strict set of behavioural rules and regulations.
AM: But those areas do not pretend to be a blank screen so that when you analyse the structure you are left with more explicit tools. But I am indeed in two minds. I’m also fasci-nated by the intoxication aroused by the cinema. But what drives me is the desire to link that experience to a situation where you are able to take note of what is happening.
MK: And where you are aware of the intoxication factor…
AM: Yes. I think that was quite clear in Utrecht. It involved a physical experience of a situation where you were an intrud-er.
MK: You referred to aesthetic detachment. How is that related to the neglect of the tactile sense?
AM: The art world taboo on touching things is completely absurd. I wonder how that relates to the way we look at mer-chandise, our behaviour in shops, etcetera. Things seduce us in a detached way into wanting to possess them. We finally get them and then they lose their magic. Our contact with objects – and that applies to objects in art spaces too – is determined to a tremendous degree, it corresponds to a fixed choreography. It ends at the skin of things and that by definition blocks a lot of pos-sible experiences. The regulation of goods in spaces is based on a complex set of rules that add up to numbness.
CvW: Where or when would that numbness be at its lowest?
AM: The point is that the numbness also seems to be the door that gives you access to things. So the question is not how to exclude anaesthetization because it’ll always be there even if you were to introduce a different typology. But I think that what I’m advocating is a way of working that results in spaces with a certain heterogeneity, where you’re not tied to one set of rules and one type of experience.
CvW: For some of your photoworks you asked people at airports to pose for you, your `Assistants’. What is their role?
AM: I wanted to create figures that would be able to serve as a vehicle for all sorts of projections and thoughts. They had to be more or less interchangeable characters, without too specific a personality.
CvW: You obviously had a preference for Asiatic types. Isn’t that a specific choice?
AM: Westerners seem to associate an Asian face with a society where the individual is more firmly part of a collective. And at the level of childish myth Asians represent the figure that comes from far away, whose origins and significance remain enigmatic. That status comes through in the way they figure in the work.
MK: They are pregnant visual elements that keep turning up in your work. What importance do you attach to developing your own language of images?
AM: I’m wary of it. At any particular moment I do want to develop a specific visual language, but I then try to let it disin-tegrate again, so that the beginning can also be the end. Too strong a tie with elements from your own work is achieved at the expense of alertness and openness. If certain themes do keep turning up this is not deliberate but something that takes place behind my back so to speak. I create a vacuum and certain things can then return there like a boomer-ang.
CvW: That’s rather schizophrenic because you’re forever fight-ing the things that come to the surface in yourself.
AM: There’s no obvious enemy for you to knife in the ribs and be done with. What you’re fight-ing is part of yourself. It’s bound up with your ambitions and it’s also a kind of attack on your own charac-ter. A rage against your own particularity.
CvW: And your own past.
AM: Yes, that’s part of it. As Gombrowicz put it, `the power of the Form’. As your life evolves the formal details become more and more powerful and determining. The other tendency is a total lack of direction and a fragmentation that’s going on all the time and is also inherent in organic evolution.
MK: And those two aspects meet in your work?
AM: I can’t get away from the power of the form. But resist-ance to it is equally decisive for the image. It’s a matter of wanting to be more particular than particular – something that turns up in the `Assistants’. The title was borrowed from Kafka’s The Castle: `Assistants’ are a manifestation of a sort of go-between figure that often appears in his work. They seem to come from elsewhere. They have human characteristics but sometimes they also look like animals or things that we know only vaguely and whose status is obscure. For a long time Kafka’s work was regarded as extremely human-istic: a plea for the individual under siege. But you can also see it as reveal-ing that the individual’s presump-tion cannot be fulfilled; that the individual is subject to all sorts of tendencies that drive him both from outside and from within. Kafka describes what is really going on. His work exposes the crazy web we find our-selves in – a con-glomeration of drives and impuls-es, where lucidity can only come from where you least expect it.
MK: That brings us back to the state of intoxication.
AM: In principle it allows you to function more at that level.
CvW: We could talk about the influence intoxication has on the body. You once said that you could identify very strongly with the image of an athlete.
AM: I’m fascinated by the way an athlete functions in our society: as a sort of engine with whom people can identify. All he has to do is perform; after he’s performed every-thing’s over and done with. I’m fascinated by the casualness of that drama. Nowhere in the newspaper is so much attention paid to vague speculations than in the sports pages. People are al-lowed to go on for columns about their troubles and uncer-tainties. Sport is the only area where failure can be dis-cussed without shame. Everybody can follow how an athlete builds up to his performance and identify with that. Artists aren’t in the same league. An athlete is also more complete than an artist; he is a sort of superman and yet no-one will blame him if he sudden-ly fails. Because that’s a necessity, inherent in his figure.
CvW: How do you handle aspects such as the `strange’ and the `familiar’ in your work? Do you look for points where those elements meet?
AM: You don’t recognize the truly strange as something that differs totally from everything else. It occurs precisely at the point where things are recognizable and yet so different that your sense of familiarity slithers away. That’s why I work primarily at `embedding’ things. Problems arise pre-cisely in situations of exclusion such as in a museum space that tries to distinguish itself fundamentally from the sur-rounding area. During the transition between spaces the next space is completely denied by the last one. That results in a momentary sense of shock but at the same time because it is so clearly spelled out it quickly loses its impact. That’s also what’s so odd about the transition from sleeping to waking. In principle it’s a shock but there are also moments when the two condi-tions merge much more than you think.
CvW: Do you like working with architects because it allows you to make the embedding more complete?
AM: The interesting thing about collaboration is that you lose some of your control. And an architect has a differ-ent concep-tual framework from an artist. It’s part of an architect’s groundwork to regulate the locomotive aspect of a situation. My ambition is to examine it in the hope of making something happen.
CvW: Would you now like to `stage’ what you did photographi-cally in the work Gl-Glow (1991)?
AM: That’s the direction I’m moving, yes. There’s an obvious link between that work and the project in Utrecht. Gl-Glow has the character of a tableau; but the performance structure is blocked so that an enormous tornado of possibilities erupts and never comes to rest. At the same time there is an aston-ishing stillness.
CvW: In 1992 you made a number of smaller objects entitled Objects to be left on trains. How literally are we meant to take that title?
AM: As literally as possible. Those things have the casualness of lost and found items and are destined to end up in some form of transport. They should scatter to the winds. The owner is unknown and the destination too. All that is known is that there should be a relocation. Whether or not that in fact happens does detract from the idea. These works suggest that the oeuvre goes its own way and escapes control. Demarcation is not something I’m striving for. It’s true there’s a core but at the edge there’s a coalescence with the surround-ings.
CvW: A centrifugal movement?
CvW: You turn furiously on your axis and all sorts of things fly off? In some works that is literally the case, when you use your own urine or nail clippings, for instance.
AM: You could look at it like that. In any case there is a centre and the further you get from that centre, the more physical recognizability takes on an inorganic character. That’s where you encounter aspects connected with waste, and with death.