Temporary Peace Zone - an interview with Carey Young by Inka Gressel, Badischer Kunstverein, Karlsruhe, 2006
First published in 'Critical Societies: a Reader', Badischer Kunstverein & Verlag fur Moderne Kunst Nurnberg, 2006
Inka Gressel: Your piece 'Colour Guide', shown at the Badischer Kunstverein, refers to visual codes and raises the question - how and by whom is the visual field structured? And what is the role of the aesthetic in your work?
Carey Young: This piece centres on some private communication between Corbis, one of the largest stock photography image banks in the world, and Immo Klink, a photographer who freelances for them. Corbis has over 70 million stock photographs which can be licensed for use in design and publishing, so it's a major source of images within wider visual culture, and they commission a lot of new photography. Immo sent me a jpeg of a grid of 36 colours - their 'colour guide', and an email from them which said words to the effect that 'these are the colours that will be popular within the marketplace, so please use them when you are creating new photographs for us.' When I looked at the colour guide it suggested to me a future bias which could eventually spread across the whole of visual culture. By recreating the colour guide at a much larger scale in coloured, opaque vinyl film and placing it on to the only light source in the gallery, it looks like a lightbox covered in giant, brightly coloured pixels. I wanted to suggest a window to the outside world that referenced but also denied the visual, and which greatly reduced the complexity of the view outside from millions of colours down to 36. At the same time that grid of colours is undeniably beautiful. It has a hypnotic quality, like the windows in a cathedral. There is a seductive aspect to the colours - the viewer might be seduced by this kind of corporate aesthetic just as we as subjects might be seduced by the power of corporate marketing.
My work as a whole seems to oscillate between projects which are relatively unaesthetic, which take on the visual quality of readymades taken from the fields of business or law and reference conceptual art, to more 'retinal' works which are carefully structured in formal terms. With recent works such as 'Colour Guide' or 'Terms and Conditions' I've been interested in taking on a more painterly language. This is partly to vary my work, I want to keep things diverging and I have always had a 'photographic' and somewhat formal eye, which is nice to come back to. It's like using humour, it's a strategy to give something enjoyable to the viewer which helps them engage with the work, which is in itself often about notions of complicity.
IG: Your video piece 'Terms and Conditions' also allows a reference to beauty, this time of a landscape. But in the actress's script we hear a composite of disclaimers from corporate websites. You have discussed this previously in terms of the notion of a 'negative space' where the possibility of action is negated. How does digital space affect real life?
CY: This piece used a natural agricultural landscape, a 'pastoral idyll', as quite a painterly backdrop. In the foreground you see a woman in a suit who looks like a newsreader standing in a field. Her script was created by collaging together a series of disclaimers from corporate websites in which there are clear rules set out for what is possible and what is restricted on their 'site'. For example, she says that all the material that you see in front of you is copyrighted, for example. As the woman performs the script, her words seem to be a reference to the landscape but in English the word 'site' has a double meaning and can also refer to websites. And by equating this with the idea of site, in the Robert Smithson, Land Art sense, this abstracted it further. The script at first seems out of place in that setting, but I’m also trying to suggest that there is a logic, that maybe this privatised, digital and highly corporate language is actually rather relevant to the landscape when we think of it in terms of genetic modification and the patenting of lifeforms and the biosphere, or the fact that the commons is increasingly being privatized.
I like J.G. Ballard’s term communication landscape as it creates a continuity between digital networks and physical space, which this piece centres on. So this shifts things away from the Enlightment view of the Cartesian split between mind and body which has unfortunately been somewhat central to the language of the digital. My work is often about physicality and embodiment, about performativity and conditioning via the internalisation of ideological information. But it references the space of the digital and the formal structures of overlapping networks of communication.
IG: You use the same tools to analyze the artistic field and to destabilize the status of the relationship between artwork, viewer and institution. The 'Disclaimer Series' in this case protect the artist. What are the different sorts of values involved?
CY: The 'Disclaimer Series' is a series of three text-based works which use the schema of the 'disclaimer' - a legal text which is increasingly found on emails or websites which allows an author, publisher or (often corporate) organisation to protect themselves by denying any responsibility for what they or their employees have said. The three works in the 'Disclaimer Series' each offer a disclaimer about art, written in precise and authentic legal language. For example, one piece, 'Disclaimer: Value', disclaims its economic value as a work of art, and places all the responsibility for its value in the hands of others (everyone except the artist). Another in the series, which is called 'Disclaimer: Access' describes all the ways in which the hanging and display methods used to exhibit the work in any circumstances are against the artist's intentions. The work can never be seen in the way the artist intended, and thus the viewer feels that perhaps they can never really see the work, so the work both exists and seems not to exist. The disclaimer creates a slippage in the ontological status of the work which is quite playful, but because the works were created in collaboration with an intellectual property lawyer (Massimo Sterpi) the language in the works has the quality of a readymade.
So to answer your question, the pieces do not really protect the artist, they destabilise our expectations of the reception, collection and ontological qualities of a work of art. I was particularly interested in taking the disclaimer as a little-noticed but widespread phenomena, that is considered so unimportant it has scarcely been examined in a critical way, and pushing it into the realm of art. Disclaimers seem really worth examining because they are symptomatic of a society in which the powerful seem largely unaccountable.
IG: Your piece 'Conflict Management' was the only one that left the aesthetic frame of the exhibition project and was translated into the public sphere. It was realized in a popular market place, and was imagined as a zone to settle disputes using professional mediators. On a conceptual level one was first thinking of the privatisation of public sphere that corresponds to a 'becoming-public' of the private. But I was surprised by the unimagined effects and forms of interaction that arose. It tells a lot of what conflict-culture could mean in different contexts. Did you aim to comment on the corporate absorption of free debate and the role of branding in the public space - the idea to bring a product to the marketplace?
CY: The work can raise these associations but it's important that the tool used in the piece - negotiation skills - is not necessarily a corporate procedure. In fact it is often offered by non-profit organisations who offer their conflict-resolution services to industry, governments and the professional sphere in general. It's a process that is often associated with the bitter disputes between unions and industry, especially in the 1970s and 80s in the UK, something I remember from my childhood. However the setting of the work within a marketplace and within sight of the logos of multinational companies is important. In Budapest, where the work was first commissioned, I placed the mediator's stall in front of McDonalds and Nokia logos, and in Karlsruhe the Hypovereinsbank was right there as a visible element in the background. It's often said that our lives now play themselves out within a marketplace - this is of course one of the defining principles of neoliberalism, that the market provides all the answers to any social, political or personal need. So the work refers to its setting but is not necessarily offering a 'corporate' experience. In fact, the essence of this work, at least to my imagination, is that it acts as a 'temporary peace zone', it is a kind of utopia, a very short-lived mirage because the work is there for just one day. But this is a utopia that is set in an overtly commercial context, and which also refers very much to the culture of so-called 'reality TV' and our confessional talk-show culture where people seem only too happy to air their most intimate problems in public. So these aspects complicate the utopian potential of the work.
I was interested to learn that in Eastern Europe there is no tradition of conflict resolution. If people have a conflict they only will try to think of the law courts as a way to solve it. There is no understanding of mediation as an option, as a way of avoiding the expense of the legal system. Obviously in Germany people must be more used to this idea. In Karlsruhe the piece was more heavily used by the public, so the mediator was almost constantly busy.
IG: Also in Germany mediation is not yet well known to a broader public. The professionalizing of mediation in Germany developed from social/ welfare work whereas in the Anglo-American context it had been the business world…
CY: Maybe the Anglo-American context comes from the fact that English and American law is historically linked. The German legal system is actually far closer to the French legal system, and they share a tradition and some basic philosophical principles. But it is important to remember that in terms of my artistic intention the piece is 'successful' even if nobody uses it, it is an offering which may be rejected (although both times the work was presented the mediation service was used by the public.) The central concept of the work is this idea of the temporary peace zone, which exists purely on symbolic terms. If it is ignored by the public that is of as much interest as its constant use.
IG: Was documentation an integral part of the process?
CY: Yes and no. Documentation is often vital to my work because I often work in a performative way, creating participative works for the viewer. I have become increasingly careful to compose the work visually by thinking of the final documentation at the moment of choosing a site. I consider how it will look photographed, whether the documentation can convey the central concepts of the work, because the documentation is likely to carry much of any historical resonance that the piece may gain.