Bilbao Song: Peter Friedl

by Anselm Franke


In its relationship with art, history is often flattened out into a repertoire of images to be drawn on acritically, an approach that values the fascinating nature of the image over any (problematic) confrontation with its political potential. This process of standardization via emblematic images is, to Peter Friedl, the starting point for a refutation and aesthetic re-writing. In his most recent project, on exhibit in Bilbao, Basque history becomes an imaginative world reincarnated in an allegory of tableaux vivants, an attempt to ward off the risk of it being completely reduced to an image.


ANSELM FRANKE: You said that today, in capitalism’s “mimetic standard program,” there are only “bodies, and languages or artifacts.” What exactly do you mean by that?

PETER FRIEDL: “Bodies and languages” means that history has disappeared. Without history, there is no verticality. As standard program, there are really only bodies left. For their immediacy, no history or philosophy is needed, nothing at all.

AF: Why does history disappear?

PF: Because it is seen as too complicated. History disappears from images, too. That’s why I think art is a phase-out model. I feel closer to artists who were linked to history in an organic way and knew where a particular form of representation came from and how it changes. With the great filmmakers it was the same. In the meantime, that has been lost through horizontality and too many images. Such a politics of images that simply have to be competitive corresponds with the formula of bodies and languages.

AF: Why do you meanwhile consider as failed the model that was still your program ten years ago, creating a picture that works at a minimum of five levels?

PF: It’s not as if I now make pictures that work at only one level. But I no longer have the hope or the expectation that such a model will have an effect or become established as a standard. There are parallel worlds. There is also the popular version of the various levels.

AF: When and why do these windows close?

PF: Good question. I think that I’ve never been able to totally identify with the systems of contemporary art. At how many levels should the notion of the contemporary function? I find it scary when I think of what remains from the twentieth century, and then Picasso comes to my mind. There was a consensus that something more complex would evoke, if not a protective instinct, then, at least respect. It was interesting enough to establish another parallel world, in the best case an aesthetic, not only a psychological narrative. I think that’s gone.

AF: In his text The Screen of the Phantasm, Serge Daney reports that André Bazin lived together with an iguana. Apart from that, it is about the screen as a hymen, the inadequacy in the depiction of transformation and about the moment of change in the image, without montage. He poses two laconic questions regarding politics: “How to film class struggle?” and “How to film the awakening?” This touches on several historical motifs that could also be relevant for you.

PF: Images and forms develop in paradoxical ways. One could say: because the resistance of reality is different in each case. And because images and forms are being staged. If you want to film class struggle, it means that it exists. Did Bresson, for example, film class struggle in Pickpocket or L’Argent? Probably not. For the most part, he filmed doors and vertical lines. When we talk about history, the question is what role documentary images play. Must the political image even have an author? Often, a lot of time goes by before useable images emerge. One has to know that images lost or missed cannot be recaptured.

AF: Your journeys are about political history and history of consciousness. What are colonial images and how can they be disarmed?

PF: Colonializing is going on constantly, in any case, more often than decolonizing. When the sphere of influence, the control of what you know, is stretched too greatly and superimposed over another context, colonial images emerge. Normally, I do not believe in adequate images. There are always some blind spots in every picture. One could say: colonial images celebrate this blindness. There are Neapolitan nativities created around 1700, which are not racist. Usually, the black Madonnas are not racist either. From Dürer we have the drawing of a female slave in the house of the Portuguese commercial representative in Antwerp. It seems that in the nineteenth century, with colonialism, it became impossible for European and American artists, at least for the canonized ones, to create anything other than colonial pictures. On the question of disarming: it would often be better if no pictures at all were made.

AF: Did you develop travel as an empirical method?

PF: I like to travel and I like traveling concepts.

AF: You were talking about the fact that missed images cannot be recaptured.

PF: There is this sense that forms are limited. Intelligent form has become far too powerless and needs support. My use of genre was an attempt to go further in this direction. But the consequence for artworks is that they become quite fragile. At the moment I think it is impossible to find valid pictures for that.

AF: But that’s a matter of change.

PF: Maybe our identity has become so complicated that it can no longer be properly grasped by art’s representational possibilities, or our expectations of art have taken a false turn somewhere. Specifically, towards a dictate of adequate representation that might possibly have never existed because people in the past were also much more complicated. In art, a different complexity is set in motion. But when is an artwork complex? How much time does one have to spend with it? Perhaps you understand a picture twenty years later. Dealings with art, mainly, institutional dealings with art, take as a starting point, models of understanding that are far from any reality. That has also become a decisive criterion in curating exhibitions. Things that are incomprehensible are not given any credit. Such constraints and expectations have had strong effects on the making of art. People get nervous when they have the feeling of not being immediately understood. Fast, apparent understanding leads to history going astray. In the past I would have said about the limitations of form: you choose one and fill it. But it sounds like a recycling model. I wanted to find a classical structure and form for the rather untenable aesthetic material of the present.

AF: Nothing about this paradigm has changed.

PF: Except considering it competitive art. Millions of people know about the giraffe at documenta 12, from the newspaper and internet, or because they were there. But nothing comes back. Whatever is not capitalized leaves behind no traces.

AF: What was it about the parallel stage of The Zoo Story that interested you? You called it a model for narratives.

PF: I believe that a good artwork is also the solution to a particular problem. Just look at Giotto’s Cappella degli Scrovegni: the sky is suddenly truly blue, and in the midst of a pre-given religious setting, the painter Giotto presents his architectural models. With The Zoo Story, several tricky things come together like in an experimental set-up. First of all, I did not exhibit any media images but, rather, the original. The stuffed Intifada giraffe is extremely politicized, at the same time, it is funny. We know how art and politics are permanently missing each other, but there is also a more precise concept of the politics of art. I wanted to play that out in a work that looks like a readymade, but is not. My medium was the loan, which is the opposite of appropriation. After documenta, the giraffe was sent back to Qalqiliya again. In my case, it’s always useful to ask: who or what is the aesthetic enemy? What genre is it about? With the The Zoo Story, propaganda art was the problem that had to be solved in a dignified way. The giraffe is now home again, there in the West Bank, hopelessly charged with content.

AF: Isn’t it also about outsmarting relations of empathy?

PF: Of course it was advertising for the Palestinians, but my work could not really be criticized, and that was perhaps something new. There have certainly been better times to talk about the Middle East problem in an intelligent way. Everything there is drowning in media images and the art images that want to compete become just as meaningless. In the last, strange Genet book Un captif amoureux, there are a number of beautiful literary images that have since disappeared: of the Palestinian revolutionary; of the old mother who has to bear lots of children because the sons will fall in battle; or the young, modern Palestinian woman. I was interested in the disappearance of these images. I wanted to see how far I could get with my self-imposed image ban. In The Zoo Story, the model for narratives refers to the relationship of documentation and representability. It is actually a small plea: try to think of a story in a new way, rather than perceiving it in the common media version! The most intelligent question at documenta came from a ten-year old girl: “Is the giraffe a he or a she?” Sometimes the models for narratives are also models for freedom. As an author, I stake out the territory for my story. But the narrative itself is much larger than I am. It is even monstrously large with regard to the Middle East problem. There are lots of disproportional things there. And that’s also how it is with the giraffe. In this case, a little giraffe with a big heart. When its heart is no longer able to pump blood up through its body, it will die.

AF: In Liberty City, I find interesting the symmetrical reversals to which you subject a historical event, almost as though it were a laconic commentary of Theory of Justice, your collection of newspaper images. Liberty City is about the continuum of racist violence and urban planning as a result of the New Deal. Reversing the violence takes up, or even mocks the idea of justice. What is the relationship between history and fictionalizing here?

PF: From fiction come models that make it possible to understand history. For example, this standard scene about racism in the metropolis: on the night of 17 December 1979, the black motorcyclist Arthur McDuffie was stopped and beaten to death by white cops at the corner of North Miami Avenue and 38th Street. When the policemen were acquitted at the trial five months later, Liberty City exploded. The Liberty Square Housing Project comprises several blocks that were built during the Roosevelt era for African-Americans. I filmed my short film on site, with people who live there. We turned around the dramaturgy. Having a white cop beaten is practically the most unrealistic scene that one could think of here. But all involved gladly tried it out.

AF: Your most recent work focuses on the fantasmagorical historicity of images. What was your starting point for the video installation Bilbao Song?

PF: I asked myself: why aren’t there any truly good Basque images—ones that both transport history and are aesthetically interesting? There is powerful imagery of Basque history, but these images do not necessarily exist on canvas or in film. Missing in this history is, for example, the fully realized painter. The question is whether that is connected to the difficulty of achieving a national identity. Or is there a possibility of approaching these aesthetic problems at a level other than that of identity? What interests me in Bilbao Song is something unsolved and unsolvable.

AF: How did you arrive at the tableau vivant for the formal realization?

PF: I believe that a Sleeping Beauty tactic is the only way to redeem unredeemed history, that is, by enchanting it, in turn. These are composed images short-circuited with the melody of the Bilbao Song by Brecht/Weill (from their unsuccessful musical comedy Happy End), which had nothing to do with the Basque Bilbao. My intention was to do that in theater, my old enemy. But the Serantes Theater—located in a suburb of Bilbao—is just a production site here. The starting image is Henry IV Receiving the Ambassador of Spain (1817) by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. Henri IV from Navarra is retranslated into Basque mythology. The other images are much more unrealized, for example, Soldado y Mulata by Víctor Patricio Landaluze, who was born in Bilbao and immigrated to Cuba in 1850, a conservative satirist who became a chronicler of Cuban society. Bilbao Song is a filmic meditation on the production of images. It is about the history behind the pictures.

(Translated from German by Lisa Rosenblatt)


Originally published on Mousse 23 (April-May 2010)

Related Articles
Of Familiarity: Polys Peslikas
(Read more)
Driving the Human: A Three-Year Development Process Combining Science, Technology, and the Arts
(Read more)
A Sculpture Looking at You Whilst Touching Itself: Jesse Wine
(Read more)
Ficting and Facting. McKenzie Wark, RIBOCA2—2nd Riga International Biennial of Contemporary Art 2020
(Read more)
the pleasure principle: Stephanie LaCava
(Read more)
Portraits of Landscapes: Tau Lewis
(Read more)