Je kunt de geschiedenis pas veranderen als je haar begrijpt’.Interview met Peter Fend / ‘You cannot change history until you understand it’. Interview

Mark Kremer: You have derived technological and scientific principles from the work of Joseph Beuys and Land Artists like Walter de Maria and Robert Smithson. How do you feel about the effectiveness of their art concepts?

Peter Fend: Their concepts are fine, but they did not take them to the level of practical application. De Maria wanted to set up a company to make more `Lightning Fields’ but didn’t do that. He was more or less tempted away from it by his patrons. Smithson wanted to work with construction companies. He probably didn’t know that those companies were closely tied to the defence industries and the State Department. Only if you understand geopolitics can you get access to the big construction companies and work on that level. Joseph Beuys was similarly naive, I think he succumbed to the temptation of being an art star and failed in the tasks that he defined. Not one of these artists was aware of the fact that we do not have a free economy or freedom of speech in any real sense of the word, which explains why these substantially new ideas did not get developed in the way they require.

Camiel van Winkel: You read their work in a very utilistic manner.

PF: Yes, I take it very literally. An art concept is not just an idea, it is a possible reality.

CvW: But is the use that you make of the work also implied in the concepts?

PF: Yes. All these cases embody germs of ideas which if expanded could cause a whole new florescence of built reality. I have talked specifically with Beuys about the Fat Corner idea, and he said: That’s what I would like to see happen. But even if the artist did not particularly envision or desire such an outcome, this does not preclude a logical conclusion in built reality from the work. There is art──that is, painting, drawing, sculpture──and there is the architecture which ensues from it by visual or structural logic.

MK: Could you give an example of the way this analysis helped shape your own practice?

PF: My work on saltwater basins is a logical follow-through from Land Art concepts by artists like Smithson, Dennis Oppenheim and Meg Webster, involving concavities that receive salt water. I just try to have the architectural and environmental manifestation of those concepts enter the world on the level of normal commerce and business.
I find myself in a remarkable situation at my age (43). I have become, so to speak, politically alert. In my youth I never planned or envisioned this. I was not protesting against the war in Vietnam, and I didn’t try to get involved in political discussions. But as I entered the world of international relations as a professional, I found myself saying: I can use all these ideas from art and bring them into this world.

MK: Why?

PF: Because I would see that they were working with visual constructs that were completely outmoded and inappropriate to the actual conditions. I saw that the World Bank and the UN would improve their regional economic planning and their involvement in large-scale land systems, if they knew about ideas from art.
At the World Bank I was asked to help write Sector Studies. This meant that for a given country, like Nigeria or Togo, which is a colonial given that has no relationship to the tribal or geological conditions, we would make separate reports about electrification, urban development, rural development, heavy industry, airline infrastructure, and so on, one for each sector. The people at the World Bank attempted to have perfect perspectival images, like the classical paintings that were hanging on their walls. There was an uncoordinated development mentality: each sector would be developed perfectly along its vanishing line perspective towards it target, without all the targets being brought together. You need a different mental and visual training to cope with that, as exemplified by Sol LeWitt’s drawings and field studies. Everybody who works in these fairly high-powered conditions should be aware of the visual logic that is occurring today, because that is appropriate to today’s problems and technology. If not, you might actually be using old mental constructs to work with new technology.

MK: Could your practice be defined in terms of `real intervention’?

PF: Yes, well, the intention is not so much to intervene but to enter into the real world. My objective in the long term, in a generation or two, is that artists’ ideas can be brought into the normal framework of landscape and urban thinking.

CvW: The fact that all twentieth century attempts by artists to deploy art as a means for direct social change have largely failed, like those of the Futurists, Beuys, and the Constructivists, is not only due to state impediments, as you suggested, but also to inherent contradictions in their ideas and work.

PF: I agree with you. In fact I would like to distance myself from all the artists mentioned. They all had good ideas, but they were unaware of the extent to which they were manipulated. They had no idea of history or of the way the art market is being handled. Whether by laziness, vanity or whatever, they allowed themselves to be bogged down in various art games and to lose their focus on their original intentions.

MK: How do you feel about your own chances to succeed? Are you optimistic?

PF: I wouldn’t say optimistic, but persistent. I have learned to be persistent because I know this much about history: History is a process of pulses. Most of the initial pulses fail. You must not allow your ego to be attached to them. Defeat is normal. Being killed is actually fairly standard. But eventually this constant pulsing builds up its own momentum in energy. Even if I get wiped out, it still will happen, because of the momentum of the idea.
However, most of the things I have tried to do so far have been blocked by state authorities. Almost everything I want to do is not allowed.

CvW: Why is it not allowed? Are your proposals against local regulations?

PF: No, they are usually in accordance with the regulatory situation. Specifically with regard to my satellite work: all national and international laws and regulations say that civil satellites data are public domain material. It is absolutely legal to give them to the media, but in reality of course you can’t. The fact is that you have the secret police telling you to stop and taking your stuff away.
Most of the things that I cannot do today, and that I am forced do in an art context, would be realized if only the rules were obeyed. We would have done our satellite work, our marsh engineering work, we would have the offshore algae rig in operation. I am only asking for the enforcement of the rules and laws, such as the US Constitution and various Western provisions for civil liberties and fair market competition which we have spent centuries getting to. This is no more than asking for the enforcement of the standard principles of the Enlightenment.

CvW: Your blueprint for a new social and economic environment is very expansive and holistic. How do you reconcile your cynicism regarding twentieth century politics with your confidence that in the future things can change?

PF: I wouldn’t call it cynicism but a certain realism acquired from quite astonishing experience. My point is that history is little more than the fighting of dragons. You cannot change history, or enter into it, until you understand it. You need to know all the aspects of the game, and who the fighters are, in order to deal with a programme. The programme is very simple on my part: do what artists were trying to do in 1913, before World War I, when there was a lot of trans-European art in Holland, Russia, Poland and Italy. Simply make architecture out of art on a business basis. It may seem that I have a holistic vision, but it’s no more holistic than what Standard Oil has. They have a very clear vision of how the world works.

CvW: Wouldn’t your attempts to enter the world be more effective if you focused your energy on a smaller, more specific objective?

PF: The question is how to get the work into the world, and how to be both interesting and engaging and intellectually honest. I have lately realized that we should follow the thinking of people like Rockefeller, and get access to basic resources: in this case not the oil field but the coast, the ocean. For that reason I am interested in Iceland, Norway, Australia, and the coast of Slovenia. In co-operation with a naval architect and a scientist we have built in France a working prototype of our offshore algae rig, which produces enormous quantities of algae, from which one can produce low molecular-weight hydrocarbons, with the algae having fed on nutrient outflows or upwellings in the sea. Once that rig is in operation, almost everything else will be automatic. Once you have control of the marshes the whole Fat Corner cycle can be started. So this `holistic’ vision is possible if you control the primary energy resource, just as oil companies today do.

CvW: What I don’t understand is, why do you call yourself an artist?

PF: I don’t call myself an artist, I constantly say that I am not, but rather am doing architecture.

CvW: Yet you do operate within the art world.

PF: I do that against my will. The art world has a main job in isolating artists from the real world. The power of artists to combine into corporate structures is blocked. They are unaware of the fact that other forces are making sure that they are in a little corner playing with their toys.

CvW: Then why aren’t you operating as an architect?

PF: I don’t have a licence, so I am not legally allowed to practice that. However, you should consider that my function in relation to artists, in bringing their work together with scientific practices to deal with the habitat, is that of an architect anyway.
But I have to admit: the art context allows me to do my work. I could not possibly do this as Ocean Earth in the real world context. You might say that I’ve come to some realization of a way to use the art context creatively. Art does allow you to show what is otherwise not allowed and thus to bring that into the stream of society. The main thing is to do it in such a way that in the end your project is on the front page of the business news, and not just in the cultural supplement.

CvW: More than about the content of your proposals you seem to enjoy talking about the opposition you meet with.

PF: I do that for the art world, because I think it is not at all aware of the opposition. The limiting factor is not within my ideas; as various experts have pointed out, they can be executed. The problem lies in the way artists and art ideas are being crushed by the powers that be, largely because art embodies new ways of doing things. Artists do not recognize that they are threatening the old habits; they are therefore not prepared to engage in combat, and to deal with commercial and legal struggles to get their ideas realized.
I often meet up with cowardice in the people in the art world. They tend to back out when it gets to be real; psychologically they just can’t handle the pressure. At this time, I would prefer to work with younger people, people who don’t have a reputation to lose. They have enough physical drive to go out there and do things that are really crazy.
You only live once, you are mortal, and your energy to make art diminishes as you get older. Because of this ageing process, succession procedures are very important: you have to pass on the work. Today, every major corporation is basically a body of ideas and information. You can’t build a car without having an enormous amount of accumulated and codified knowledge. That allows someone entering a company to work with an enormous legacy. We don’t have that in art. There is no proper succession system.

MK: What do you propose as a solution?

PF: Business structures are necessary, as a means to collect the ideas and to create a power base. As long as you don’t have a legal structure, you won’t achieve anything. A Wall Street lawyer has helped us in setting up Ocean Earth. Anything we’ve done since then has been simply trying to be a legal enterprise in the world.

MK: You have a very materialist notion of art.

PF: Yes, I think that art is nothing but material. I am very unimpressed by the enormous body of written intellectual ideas about art. I want to de-intellectualize it. The fact is: the thing is the thing.

MK: Do you deliberately suppress all ambiguity in the visual language of your work?

PF: Yes. It has happened that ordinary people understood my work better than art critics. Now who’s stupid? The art critic does not see what normal people can see. He is looking for a meaning that is not there: it’s just a thing. The thing is understood immediately by those who live in the world.

CvW: One of the aims of Ocean Earth is `processing civil satellite data for public release, hence discussion of public policy’. Does the reading of those images not require a trained eye? What is the use for the general public to be confronted with them?

PF: In fact satellite monitoring is a totally new business, so there are no experts. Satellite data should be processed into pictures and made available to everyone as soon as possible, just as news photographs are available. After that the analysis of what really happened can come from any number of vectors. When the Challenger exploded in 1986, everybody saw the photograph. What had happened? What did it mean? We had to figure that out later, but at least there was the photograph.

CvW: But that was a very dramatic and recognizable picture. Isn’t that a difference?

PF: The satellite picture of giant waterway structures going through the desert in the Persian Gulf area, which we published in 1987, is also instantly recognizable and readable. The problem is not that the images are not understandable or presentable, but that no one wants them to be understood or presented, because the public could get used to the idea that it can see what’s happening. If we would have had any reasonable release capacity in 1985 for our satellite images of the Gulf area, people would have known that not only there was this activity by Iraq towards Iran but also an activity towards Kuwait. It would have been public knowledge that there was a major engineering project going on in the direction of the Kuwait border for reasons of holding the river delta. We probably never would have had the invasion of Kuwait as it happened, nor Operation Desert Storm, which cost 700 billion dollars.

CvW: You stress the democratic and historical potential of the electronic media. But all this technology could be used in a negative and manipulative way as well.

PF: Obviously things are being manipulated and distorted and altered. However I believe in true art. I believe in truthful images. I like truth, I never liked fiction. I like to understand how things really happened, or how things really work. I am fascinated to learn what Winston Churchill was doing in 1912 to take over British Petroleum and the world oil industry. It reveals the world that I live in. It makes me understand my options.

MK: But then art is a difficult context for you to operate in; it is historically more interested in fiction.

PF: I am not so sure about that. I think historically art has been interested in truth. A cave artist painting animals on the walls of the cave had better help the hunters, who go out and risk their lives, to succeed; the pictures had better be reliable. After the Chernobyl accident, TV companies paid us to provide them with pictures of the site. Our satellite images showed that a landslip due to problems of hydrology had caused the reactor to collapse. Were we supposed to falsify that story? No, we were supposed to provide the best possible, the most reliable, painting that we could make.

MK: The truest painting?

PF: The most honest.

Details zijn een vingerwijzing naar een omvattender problematiek’. Interview met Alan Murray /’Details are the pointer to a bigger issue’. Interview w