Max Henry

Conversation with Joep van Liefland

Joep, what was the impetus for the Video Palace installations using such specific material/aesthetics? Would it relate to your earlier incarnation as a punk musician?

First of all the concept for the installation derived from a thing I loved to do at that time, hanging on the couch watching videos. Having no money I found out that it was actually cheaper to buy them second hand than to rent in a store. Somehow I got fascinated with totally unimportant movies, cheap remakes of Hollywood mainstream film. I found them inspiring: they are edited bad, the makers have no money for special effects but still they try to create them. Speaking of punk, they are sort of punk; low standards, low budget, improvising, but also creative in their solutions.  I started to develop this idea of exploring and collecting the lowest segments of the culture industry. Not for cult, or camp, but just for the sake of it, as a mapping of poor entertainment economics. I also have a big collection of cheap commercial flyers…

As a young guy raised in suburbia, punk was a revelation. Attending my first punk concert, it was like a new world opening up, the leather, smoke, darkness, music, aggression. At that time in my hometown there was much going on, everybody was playing in bands, squatting and organizing concerts, making their own records and fanzines. It was very fascinating.
Punk was for me a way to create a space within a dominant structure where other things can happen, with minimal means, to create a maximal output. The 'do it your self style' is maybe still part of my work, the physicality, roughness/edginess, and yes also a sort of stage or performance aspect.

I see no irony within the technological obsolescence you employ. There is an aesthetic to the installations that is a faded Modernity like a flea market postcard.

The funny thing about old postcards is that you suddenly become aware of other peoples lives, how many more places there are and the passing of time. They are a kind of a mirror where you see your own mortality. My videos are in that sense like flea market postcards.

I like your notion of faded modernity. There is still an (consumer-producer) idea of modernity in the progress of the technological. Maybe we can also speak of faded media machines or faded media culture. You become aware of how images, icons, style, graphics and technology pass by and are relative; still floating around, while newer formats are dominant. The new that will inevitably undergo the same fate or destiny. I have to think of Harrison Ford's apartment in the film Blade Runner. Until then I had only seen SF-movies with completely futuristic houses and spaces. And this room looked very normal and timeless, as if it had always been that way. With Video Palace I have the idea that the whole world outside is moving forwards but in Video Palace time is standing still -or is even going backwards- thus creating a feeling of the uncanny and disorientation.

Weirdly that makes me think of Monet’s trick of nature you pointed out in some of the previous talks we had.

That is partly what I like so much about Monet. In order to paint he designed his own garden, which he then painted. He creates his own universe. His later water lily paintings have nothing to do with the surroundings/world outside. There is something mental about it. Likewise, Video Palace could be read as a parallel media universe with all of the concurrent media discharge.

In other conversations we’ve had you always bring up the work of Broodthaers, he is an important contextual link for you. I read your Video Palace in relation to his “Section Cinema”, the seventh part of the museum fictions that had installments from 1968 to 1972.  

His 'Musée D'Art Moderne. Département des Aigles' and his films, like 'A Voyage on the North Sea' are very relevant to me. Also his notion of 'subversive nostalgia' is interesting. His work looks nostalgic but then he transports radical meaning concerning art and film and puts it all into question. He is not in the least nostalgic; rather he hijacks and subverts the aesthetic of nostalgia in the symbols he uses; old postcards, handwriting, the educational touch. His work is one big 'deconstruction trap'. As for Video Palace there is no concern with nostalgia itself. It’s more an archeology and exploration of a territory. The video medium is multifaceted: The technical development, the distribution, the content of the films themselves, the copy element, porn, the different market segments or classifications, the stores and ultimately its contextual relation to art. All these aspects are relevant to my work.
At the same time there is a sense of loss that suffuses my work and the Video Palace project. Of course this also has to do with video being an old medium. A new medium is connected to hope and new possibilities while an old medium has more to do with death, ghosts and traces.

What about the so-called media-entropy (your term) in your work?

Concerning video culture (not meaning art videos but commercial videos), I’m mostly interested in the aspects of media waste. The term entropy in relation to my work relates to how media formats and information decays and dissolves. I think a lot about the article of Robert Smithson 'Entropy And The New Monuments' where that is concerned.
But also literally: A day handling secondhand videos - putting them in and out of boxes- and your hands are dirty, like working in the garden. There is all this human stuff on the covers: sweat, coffee, dirt, dried sperm, the accumulated dust of the storage and water stains of leaking garages. It tells us something about cultural changes. Video also went together with an infrastructure of places (shops/rentals) where the media got exchanged. That has disappeared or is going to. In that sense video is still bound to the body and to physical architecture, also when it comes to the cassette itself. You can hold it in your hand; it's mechanical, runs forward, backward. It may be the last media system to do so.

There is a new development in your installations that extends and goes beyond the Video Palace series. Your silk-screen paintings of videocassettes (among other subjects) highlight decay. Such aesthetic blight like scratch marks, peeled off sticker labels, dirty scuff-markings, and video casing become something greater.

I think of video as a minimalist industrial serial product, there is something fascinating about blank cassettes. Leaving the factory they are all the same, but then they get used by people, who put their own choice of movies or TV shows on it, write on it, use and reuse it, copy it. Such a standardized mass product gets personally inscribed; I guess that happens more or less to all mass products - they get personal. With the new paintings there is this explicit part, a focus on human traces and the 'teeth of time'. A ripped off sticker i.e. can seem like a small-scale violent act. By blowing the cassettes up to greater dimensions, it gets a different perspective. Also in the silkscreen process itself a lot of 'wanted' mistakes happen, irregularities that strengthen this interest in the imperfect, in the human imprint on the technical.

You could speak of a sort of transcendence of a mass produced media commodity. The cassette itself is an object with fetish aspects, a black box containing shiny black tape, closed, concealed, a mystery inside. I make this minimal object explicit by turning it inside out and opening it up.

Technically speaking of the cassettes it was actually a long way of invention, hard work and dedication to get to the actual VHS tape. If you see the first research projects to develop video-machines that got developed for TV purposes, in order to get independent of live broadcasting - these are huge machines, pasted together with cables, transistors, and old-fashioned electronics. Very analog.

Do those deformations then relate to the concept of analog residue we’ve talked about?

Yes, by the transmission or copying of an analog signal there will always be a signal loss: 'noise' or distortion, as opposed to the digital, which you can copy and send without any change. In an analog system, the more you copy, the more noise there exists.

So then the paintings could be a turning up the volume of the low frequency noise found within the various videocassette covers and posters you’ve shown in previous incarnations of Video Palace?

You could definitely speak of a loss of signal here. For me the element of misprint is important in the actual printing process. It emphasizes a sense of wear in the eventual image/painting. Makes it look old and used, like a copy of a copy of a copy.

What about the abstract elements in both the videos you shoot auteur-style yourself and the paintings you make in the studio.                           

I'm interested in abstraction in the sense of erosion amplified by a mechanical procedure or by time. Abstraction could be regarded as an eroded copy of an original source. It derives from something and points to something. Abstraction without any reference to an existing entity or source would be meaningless. If a video cover gets sun on it or water, touched by hands over years, the time works its magic onto the cover. The ink gets bleached, the picture stained. The image slowly disappears or loses its 'signal'. You could call it phenomenological abstraction. In my work I try to simulate and stimulate this process by artificial means.

Context wise I see you in the contemporary currents dealing in re-appropriation, reproduction, distribution, doppelgangers, and mechanization by artists such as Wade Guyton, Christian Marclay and even Seth Price. Related to your concepts the printing/production process of Wade Guyton is all about anomalies, Ad Reinhardt/early Stella, Minimalism, all within an analog paradox. The industrial-sized inkjet printer he uses to make imprints of forms on canvas, and the virtuality employed to delineate their markings. Then he leaves room for improvisatory accidents, and therein lies his 21st century Modernity.

The work of Wade Guyton is relevant to me. He's using the unintentional by-products of a machine, in his case the inkjet printer. That's what interests me too, although I use it more in the context of an analog system related to mechanical, manual labor.

My paintings exist as singular, mechanically assembled reproductions. They deal with the transformation and dissolution of serial commodities originally produced for media storage. Their shift of aura and decline from new to avant-garde commodity into anonymous media residue floating around is what interests me.

It's interesting you name Ad Reinhardt and Frank Stella, who at some point in their careers were occupied with fundamental painting, re-questioning the basic parameters of what painting is and can be. I think these questions have not really been imposed in the same way upon video (installation). A lot of artists make videos, and these are projected in a black box, mimicking the cinema, but there is a lot of context that hasn't been worked out.

Speaking of videos in an art context, a fundamental part of your work - and of the Video Palace installations – is the screening of your short films. In recent installations you’ve moved away from lowbrow b and c movies and amateur pornography. You often portray an abstraction of images as in “Donald Judd Faces of Death” or a forlorn protagonist in a silent movie. The films share a similar looking cheapness of production value yet have a high content value missing from the banal offerings of the discarded third tier produced videotapes.

As far as my earlier films are concerned, they are not identical with b and c movies or amateur pornography. Maybe at first sight they have the same appearance but they operate on a different level. I see my films in terms of a poetic de-reconstruction and as a reflection on existing media. By breaking down existing formats and using their iconography I create new meaning. Importantly my video collection is not only movies, but also promotional tapes for companies, business, propaganda or informational films concerning social issues. This can vary from Swiss helicopter rescues in the mountains, how to function with physical problems to UFO-video's. Together they create a distorted mirror of the world.

To me you seem to deal with the interior a lot, not just as the inside of an object itself, but the interior state in an abbreviated personal narrative with your videos. The scenes have the arc of an entire narrative, with a climactic denouement

I don't think there is so much of a narrative, but they do show a specific scene or situation that gets maximized. There is often an element of obsession and density involved, also in camera movement and depiction. Most of my videos deal with an exterior world or modality acting upon a subjective interior.
In my earlier films I use 'explicitness' as a perceptual strategy linked to horror (splatter) and porn. I use this technique of shock as a conceptual device and for metaphorical reasons. You could call it 'viewing as a violent act'. Although artificial, these genres contain a sense of truth. Their aim is total visibility; there is no hiding, no mystery. Their quest is to penetrate the flesh as much as possible and turn the interior inside out. Opposite to the consumer/viewer who seems to want to dissolve into a virtual space. Videodrome by David Cronenburg deals with this theme. The film depicts the surreal space between the interface and the viewer extremely well. But in this relationship there is no salvation, only addiction and obsession.
Where the personal is concerned, it's specifically used in a delusional way. Confusing the schism between the characters and the author. This is emphasized by the fact that most characters in the videos are played by me. Though often frank, the films are also about creating an intimate, claustrophobic space. As a viewer you are not really sure, if you want to see or perceive it. This is my concept of 'no-perception', which is an important element for most of my films.

Can you further open up this idea of “no-perception”? It’s an interesting angle.

It is influenced by the idea that the act of not-watching something can have a bigger impact than actually watching it. It's the 'Hitchcock idea' of suspense. You don't show it, so it happens in the head of the viewer. Porn and Horror work in totally the opposite way, they show exactly the scenes Hitchcock would never show, and thereby showing them endlessly. With my earlier videos the idea of no-perception was translated into a moment of choice for the viewer: 'Do I enter this space and do I want to see this film'? This triggers ambivalence in the spectator between attraction and repulsion.
In some of the newer films like “Donald Judd Faces of Death” I tend to go more into a direction of reduction and emptiness converting the idea of 'no-perception' into 'non-image' or 'vanishing of the image'. In the end, filmmaking for me is not about following a specific procedure, style or coherence but more about a synthesis of certain visions, questions and reflections on other videos, films and media that I have. They are partly lowbrow style experiments, always circling around certain parameters such as 'physicality', 'decay', 'explicitness', 'male identity', and 'perception'.  

So then would the new body of work in this "Afterlife" represent for you that very notion of perception?

The word 'Afterlife' suggests an extension or transcendence of a regular life. I was thinking about zombie movies and how something that is supposed to be dead, starts living again. It rises from the grave but in an altered form.