CONVERSATIONS Mousse 16
A Million Ways To Say No: Matias Faldbakken
by Luigi Fassi
Having emerged on the European scene in 2001 with his controversial novel The Coka Hola Company, the first part of a ferocious trilogy about the public and private vices of Scandinavian society entitled “Scandinavian Misantrophy”, Matias Faldbakken is now split between the international popularity of his writing and the hermetic nature of his contemporary artwork. An innovative heir of Situationist extremism, the Norwegian artist expresses a desire for rebellion as a total, dissolutive negation, combining pop culture and nihilism, anarchy and conceptual precision.
LUIGI FASSI: Let’s start off by talking about your background. You gained international recognition first as a novelist and writer and only afterwards as a visual artist, although the two activities seem to be thematically related to each other in your work. Did that happen by chance or did you simply start writing before making art?
MATIAS FALDBAKKEN: I studied fine art (at the Academy of Fine Art, Bergen, Norway and Städelschule in Frankfurt am Main) but after finishing my education I was completely disillusioned with working as an artist. Many of my art ideas were language-based and I decided to knit them together into a narrative, then tried to have it published by a mainstream publishing house. I had the idea that I had more freedom to combine artsy elements with entertainment in a literary format. And I guessed that the distribution was better and the audience more heterogeneous when it came to literature. The book was eventually published and I became known as a writer.
LF: I’m interested in knowing how you deal with the discrepancy between your books and your visual art. Your pieces as a visual artist are often hermetic and require some background about your work to get into them, while the narrative of your books opens up a direct critique of society that is accessible to everyone. Do you try to follow different critical paths when writing and making art, or do you just consider them two different expressions of the same discourse?
MF: Both my art practice and my writing have been about negation and negativistic strategies: hate, misanthropy and so on. My books are deliberately easy to read and entertaining, whereas my art is, as you say, more hermetic and mute. I think one of the qualities of visual art is to be a public concern and at the same time more or less inaccessible to the general public. I have an equal interest in entertainment’s ability to enter the public imagination on a bigger scale. I use my books to “popularize” some of my ideas, to see how they float in the marketplace, and I use my art more as a tool for doing silent, negativistic gestures without any intention of convincing, impressing or communicating with an audience.
LF: Due to the translations your books have had in recent years, I would imagine you have received a lot of feedback, not only from critics but also from normal readers of different ages and educational backgrounds. I’m curious whether the same thing has happened in the art world, and which of the two systems (literature/visual art) you have felt more challenged and inspired by up till now.
MF: If I get feedback in connection to my art it is always through other artists, professionals or institutions (by getting invited to a show and so forth). The feedback on my literature is much more extensive and more varied; I get to read everything from hate blogs to fan mail from teenagers. There is also a certain academic interest in my books, several papers and dissertations have been written about them and so on. But as I said, I don’t make visual art with the same intentions as I have when I write—although the same themes run through both fields. There are a lot of advantages with being in the more withdrawn place of visual art and a lot of disadvantages with having your product and ideas spread all over the place—and that is why I am doing both.
LF: It’s quite interesting this way in which you split up your activity for two different sorts of audiences with different expectations and levels of investment. It seems to me that today there is a clear gap between artists engaged in real critical practices and artists trying instead to unsettle and disrupt the dominant meanings in very predictable ways which turn out to be just a reaffirmation of the same discourse they were apparently struggling against. How concerned are you with these issues?
MF: I have the feeling, in part because of what you said earlier, that being engaged on a more popular level as a writer helps you keep your critical practice grounded in a truly genuine and authentic terrain. Artistic or activistic provocation was kind of a theme for me in my first two novels. The books talk about provocation as a tool and at the same time they are tongue-in-cheek “provocative” in their themes and execution, testing out the tools they are talking about. The dialectics between unsettling “truths” revealed by critical practice and the means for disseminating them is always interesting. There is a discrepancy between the neurotic, self-reflective academic/bureaucratic artist with limited self-confidence and a lack of audience, and the no-holds-barred and not-too-researchy show-and-media-oriented hands-on type of artist. The difference between the two is always funny. The art seminarist and the more public wild-card artist both seem to be problematic figures, and art in the hands of both of them is more often than not unlikeable. I am a fan of art’s unlikeability, and that’s why I borrow a bit from both.
LF: Some critics wrote about anarchism in your work. To me it seems in some cases you’re stretching anarchism to the point where it becomes very close to nihilism, as in One Spray Can Escapist, where the same word sprayed over and over again on a wall becomes totally illegible, or in the Newspaper stacks where the content is made unrecognizable through multiple scanning. In your artist’s book Not Made Visible it’s clear how you’re interested in articulating your work in a way close to the Situationist approach of negating culture as the only way to preserve its meaning. In this respect, you’re dealing more with harsh sarcasm than irony.
MF: Indeed, my use of the term “anarchy” has been closely linked to a nihilist fantasy of absolute freedom through total denial. Concerning the Situationists, I am mostly interested in their strategies of withdrawal, rejection and general unwillingness, their distaste for everything that surrounded them. I have never seen my work as ironic, rather sarcastic, and in relation to the books a bit satirical perhaps. Dark and violent humour, yes. But ironic? No.
LF: Your practice is all about linguistic tactics, disrupting the concept of the text as a monolithic and stable whole, as when you write sentences in aluminium electrical tape, making them become almost abstract and unrecognizable. In a way, you’ve directed this practice of textual deconstruction at yourself as well, like when you signed your first book as Abo Rasul, deleting your own identity.
MF: As mentioned earlier, the distinction between a language-based practice on the one hand, and a visual, physical practice on the other has for me always been followed by a conflict between a verbalized criticality and a more irrational and non-verbal approach. The gesture of self-deletion is obvious when I abstract my own verbal statements and make them illegible. I guess the space between the stuff that makes sense and the stuff that is incomprehensible is the space that interests me the most. The space between messages of almost totalitarian regime simplicity and gestures of uncommunicative abstraction is a space of potential, I think.
LF: The sincerity of your practice to me emerges at its best in your refusal to point to any solution or utopian direction. You don’t take any precise stand. But I wonder if you consider negation as a sort of utopian approach anyway. As though negation could be the first step towards a possible change.
MF: I guess my use of the word negation is partly a expressive formulation of a worldview based on disappointment, and partly a way of believing in maintaining potentiality through a negativistic approach. Something like my friend Happy Tom’s remodelled Obama campaign slogan: “No, we can!”
LF: You’re now exhibiting everywhere, getting more and more visibility, but you’re still based in Oslo, contributing to its emerging role as an art capital in Europe. Have you ever felt the professional necessity to move somewhere else? What do you think about the wave of Nordic artists who have moved to Berlin in recent years?
MF: To put it this way; I am not staying in Oslo for Oslo’s sake. Even though there is a scene here that is probably livelier and more internationally oriented now than earlier, I still consider Oslo a good place to withdraw and to keep a distance from the part of art life that I like the least; the professionalized socializing and the businessy one-on-one interaction with other artists and players. It’s probably not an ingenious career move, but, on the other hand, standing in the eye of the storm, waving your arms is not necessarily the final solution either. I get to go here and there when I’m doing shows and I get my fair share of art life then. I guess the life of the Scandinavians who have gone to Berlin is good, probably far better than Oslo due to the cheap drinks and lively atmosphere.
LF: Recently you had the chance to do some significant shows in the United States. How was it? Did you think your work was understood somehow differently than in Europe?
MF: I have no idea about the reception, but for me it makes sense to try and show in an American context. A lot of my work has a Scandio-European take on American art and American (pop) culture. So, yes, I would really like to show more in the States, just to learn more about the difference between an American and a European interpretation. I’m having my first novel translated into English now, too, and it will be funny to see how that goes. The way that American language is working its way into Norwegian (and other Nordic or European languages) is an underlying theme in all of the books at the linguistic level. I’m really curious about how much of that will get lost when translated into English.
LF: One last thing. Does it still make sense to talk about “Nordic art”, or was it just a temporary phenomenon that inevitably had to be assimilated into the international art system?
MF: I’ve never been interested in Nordic art as a category. But I am interested in Nordic mentalities and sensibilities and ways of life, which is partly why I’m staying here. As I mentioned above, the American influence is very visible in Scandinavia and at the same time we are cut off from Europe in a way. I like the idea of Norway being isolated and at the same time without any real identity. We just buy into whatever works for us. This duality is kind of described in my latest novel Unfun—the setting is distinctly Norwegian but at the same time the novel could take place anywhere.
Originally published on Mousse 16 (December 2008-January 2009)