„What’s wrong with this picture?“ An interview with Libia Castro and Ólafur Ólafsson about their work at AVL MUNDO in Rotterdam

1.02. 2019

The artist duo Libia Castro and Ólafur Ólafsson recently presented two works for What’s wrong with this picture?, a group exhibition at AVL MUNDO in Rotterdam. The space itself is run by the Dutch sculptor Joep van Lieshout, and places a diversity of artists in conversation with his practice, which examines the interplay between art and life. It is therefore a multi-use space surrounded by spacious walkways and parks populated with his work. Like many artists making large scale works, his studio is a tightly run organization with contributions coming from a group of people. The AVL MUNDO is inspired by Andy Warhols factory, its philosophy is to be an autarkic society within itself, inviting you to discover the world of van Lieshout and his contemporaries as you enter the space.

B: For the works presented here, you wrote a text in collaboration with the philosopher Nina Power. Can you introduce her and tell me how your collaboration came about?

L + Ó: Nina is a philosopher based in London. She is a feminist, post-marxist, leftist philosopher. We met her in 2012, when we were participating in the Liverpool Biennial. We had been looking for someone on the theoretical side to work with for our contribution there. For the Biennial, we launched a project called ThE riGHt tO Right/WrOnG, which appeared as an intervention in two iterations upon one of the city centers representative buildings, St. George’s Hall. On it, a neon sign flashes alternatively and reads ThE riGHt tO RighT and ThE riGHt tO WrOnG. It also introduces a blending of the two alternatives, proposing a new, unspeakable word RighT and WrOnG spoken simultaneously.

Along with this intervention, we made a newspaper as part of this campaign with a collaborative article written about the idea of the right to right, and the fundamental ideas around the beginning of rights. In preparation, we asked our philosopher friends if they knew interesting female philosophers working in the UK, and we were lead to Nina Power. We addressed her to write an essay in collaboration with us, which would become a free magazine distributed around Liverpool in relation to the work and the Biennial. She liked the idea, and that’s how it started with us.

The posters in the exhibition at AVL MUNDO are one outcome of our collaboration as well. They are an appropriation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that was written after the second world war. The idea about rewriting the Universal Declaration came about as we were working on the essay on the right to rights… and wrongs. We saw how much of the Declaration was aspirational and thought to rewrite it according to how the situation actually is and it ended up being a satire. We turned all the Right articles in to Wrongs and wrote the aspirational parts as how things are. So you end up with a very skewed mirror of reality. It looks more like the actual picture.

B: You mean that theoretically the Universal Declaration works, but in practice…?

L + Ó: Precisely. The intention or aspiration is good, but it is written in a very matter-of-fact way. The way it is written became interesting for us to look at. Essentially it concerns rights, so the question is how do you factualize rights, and the right to rights? We became interested in what is revealed when you present the opposite of Rights. When you turn it in to Wrongs, you get this image of the world.

B: Your works investigate the subverting of power through appropriation. It is interesting that the partial declaration is presented like a street poster in the show. It reflects how the public expresses its own messages in to society.

L + Ó: The partial declaration of human wrongs came out as an insert in the newspaper that we made with Nina Power. They are meant to be on the streets. When it was first published, the partial declaration was distributed to vendors and kiosks around the city of Liverpool as well as being present in the venues of the Biennial. We wanted to address everybody, and that everyone could have the publication, and do whatever they wanted with it. We were wondering how we could use the power of institutions to enter the streets and become visible to the public eye. When you make art that goes in to the public sphere beyond the exhibition space, then you are actually wanting to address everybody, we think. We do this as a search to see if everybody has the possibility to meet the work. It is a work that is very much about making ideas public. Our concern with this project is how an art institution can be used as a bridge to the public, and really… go out there. This work has been presented in different ways in public space and we have several versions yet unrealised. In 2016, we made a huge print (about 11x15 meters) which was pasted on a square in Venice, in a collateral exhibition to the Architecture Biennial, creating The Partial Declaration of Human Wrongs – Temporary Public Square (Venice).

B: It is good to see art becoming more inclusive of other view points. Of actually thinking about theory and therefore inviting a theorists in to the work or thinking about nature and inviting someone from the field of science in to the pieces…

L + Ó: Of thinking about music and inviting composers and musicians… That’s in a way what we do all the time with our work. The work we are doing in Iceland right now around the new constitution will end up being a musical composition. It will be a collective writing of a score, of a composition.

B: Is that the work you made for Cycle festival last year? I saw the installation there…

L + Ó: The old/current constitution was there on display, with a performance and video piece that we made in collaboration with composer Karólína Eiríksdóttir and the national television. The work was about the history of civic movements in Iceland and the old constitution. We spent around a year working with the people who fought in favor of the new one… The new one that was supposed to be implemented if it weren’t for the conservative government re-gaining power. We made an event, a public meeting, in the museum of Gerðarsafn that was a mixture of a symposium, activism, presentations and a performance. There we invited thinkers, the public and politicians to participate in an open discussion about the history of the Icelandic constitution, or the fight for an Icelandic constitution and the civic movements in Iceland and the fight for the implementation of the new constitution.

Now we are going back to Reykjavík to work with a larger group of composers, musicians and the public. Together, we will make the very first sound experiments that react on the new constitution. These fragments and experiments will function as a pool to work forward with this idea of appropriating this large document in to score. Collectively, we will make experiments and re-imagine the whole constitution as a musical piece. Hopefully we’ll get nice stuff going! We started working with the composers already. We met first in our Berlin studio, but we are meeting again in Iceland in the next few days to take the experimentation to another level.

B: What can you tell me about the Illusion Woman, a figure who is represented on a large screen here at the AVL MUNDO?

L + Ó: Illusion Woman: Study #1 is the result from our second collaboration with Nina Power and is from 2016. We were getting interested in experimenting with the form of moving image and its illusory, deceptive qualities. And when we started working with Nina, we immediately wanted to do more, in different places and with a multitude of thinkers. The idea of collective writing therefore manifests itself in the Illusion Woman, where it appears as a layering of sorts, of masking as a way to include these layers of voices and thoughts coming from different sources. The mask worked for us in several layers… it has a minimal, reductive function as she very distinctively makes an image of herself which is morphing through out the piece. It is also a mask, which for us means that many people can become her.

B: She reminds me of the magician, or the mystic within. She is both the persona that tells you what you want to hear, but she also tells you how things really are. I found the piece intriguing because it demands me to interpret the sincerity of the actual performance. What is actually said and what you can see in it becomes a very interesting challenge for the viewer of the Illusion Woman. She delivers a fortune, as well as masking herself away from it at the same time.

L + Ó: The Illusion Woman‘s speech is a plea which reflects on the political situation in Europe and beyond since the financial crash of 2008. Within this agitated space, she ponders two possible futures. One which resembled a dystopic, coarse world, ruled by a powerful and political 1%. The other comes as a proposal towards a radical, feminist, democratic and environmental insurrection. A movement which functions in the name of peace and strives to end poverty in the world.

For us, and when working with Nina, we were thinking about the video as a medium. And we were thinking about the video as a manipulative, hypnotic and illusionary medium available for artists. The illusion is already there from the moment you begin watching. We asked ourselves what are the most basic, hypnotic images? We studied archival images of hypnosis techniques, Duchamp and op art. This lead us to dazzle camouflage, which is something the British were doing in the first world war. They painted warships in black and white stripes to dazzle the opponents. The ships are crazy, they are like artworks. They are like, really, really freaky! It seems to work because from images they are like cubist paintings, breaking perspective plains. This results in the opponent not knowing whether the ship is coming or leaving, or to which side it was going. It’s all about illusion. That’s how we started to think about drawing as hypnosis, and we were interested in seeing her putting the mask on in real-time while delivering the text. The transformative proposal within the text was then mirrored in her actual metamorphosis, by painting. This we feel references back to the hypnotic, the dazzle paint, and references traditions of the mask in art history. An important aspect is also that she does not have her role fully memorized, so she is both speaking it from her heart/memory and partly reading her notes.

B: Watching the work gave me the impression of a rehearsal, and it creates an ambiguous feeling of who she is addressing, what she is preparing for. It is almost as if she is applying the warpaint, and pondering these two alternative futures.

L + Ó: She is pleaing for a resistance without war. She masks herself, evoking standardized notions of femininity on the surface. We actually think she is masking herself to prepare to fight for another possibility. Her painting herself was also helpful to us because we didn’t want her to be overacting, because it makes the concentration really concrete. She is free to repeat sentences or start over with some parts. The work is a rehearsal in a way. It’s a study of collaborative writing, of image-making, of thinking through the medium of moving image. It is essentially a way to emancipate a way to go forward, a working towards knowing how am I doing this?

When you look at the video, you are actually looking at a reflection. The camera was pointing at a mirror that it shares with the actress. So there is a double illusion on the technical side. We were always interested in the deconstructive, self-reflective element of the video. We wanted to meet reality from the lucid reality of the video. In a way, we feel that now both ends will meet again. How could this work meet different contexts in reality? In comparison to the work that create interventions in reality, like the signs or the newspaper, this work is still in a reflective state. Currently we are thinking to the space of reflection and fiction. It gives a certain freedom to experiment with models, whether they are utopic or dystopic, and to think in those spaces with other thinkers. We would like to place many minds together in this fictional space of ours, meeting real life again at some point.

As our talk comes to a closing, Libia and Ólafur happily mention that the neon-text-work ThE riGHt tO RighT/WrOnG is having a return. The Office For Art in Public Space in Rotterdam (BKOR) is acquiring the work for the city in collaboration with AVL Mundo, where it will be installed and have an unveiling during the opening of Art Rotterdam 2019, an art fair celebrating its 20th anniversary. The work will be placed in the heart of the Merwe-Vierhavens district, the last active inner city harbour area now designated to become a new creative district.

Bergur Thomas Anderson