Editor’s note: This is the 15th in a series of interviews with artists that will continue indefinitely, without direction, and outside any one person’s control. The artists are asked seven questions about their art and their ideas about art. The questions are blunt, but open-ended enough to be answered in any way the artist chooses. The final question is a request for the artist to select the next artist to be interviewed — anyone they wish, well-known or unknown, working in any medium, anywhere — any artist whose work they think highly of, an artist deserving the same public interrogation.
I began this series for entirely selfish reasons. It was to expose myself to artists and art I’d never encounter if I continued to follow my tastes and interests as I go to galleries and museums in whatever city I’m in. Artists Pick Artists is a way to roll the dice; but it is better than that, because it operates through a system of recommendations run by artists, whom I give greater weight than critics, generally, in pointing me to where the most compelling art is being made.
Kerstin Cmelka is a filmmaker, video and performance artist, photographer, and writer in Berlin. Her investment in different mediums — contemporary as this may appear — is rooted in etymological thought, tracing back the literal meanings of “art” and “artists.” As she explains, art strayed from denoting performance, entertainment, and skill over the course of modernity, which redirected us toward concepts of “genius” and social protest. Cmelka wants to reclaim “art,” as such, by having it encompass craftwork while rejecting false distinctions between performing and visual arts, high and low art, and what she calls “bureaucracy.” Art should be “infinite, highly complex and extravagant.”
Cmelka was chosen for this series by artist Matt Saunders, who claimed in my last interview with him that her last show at the Kunstverein Langenhagen was “a whip-smart trio of self-reflexive videos […] They speak with wit and emotional truth. Since then she’s been to LA and back, delved into the physical training done by actors, and is close to finished with a new work. I’m curious!”
That new work is the feature-length film The Animals.
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Rob Colvin: How would you describe your development and what you’re doing now?
Kerstin Cmelka: I started with experimental filmmaking. Film and the machinery of a camera excited me, and it still does. After some quite successful times, I stopped producing these films, though, and I stopped spending my time at film festivals. The rhythm of institutional filmmaking, as I saw it happening to others, also made me doubtful. Not just the long time it needs and the intensity film requires to be taken care of. On the contrary, I somehow like that the work with film sometimes appears to be like a sick child you have to take care of. It is more the deep holes people often fall into once a film is finished. I started to experience that film means so many other things to me. For instance, I keep returning to “the cinema of attraction,” the very early cinema that took place on fair grounds, and that was not a part of commercial feature film, but more a magical and popular tool at the turn of the century, and then went underground, later strongly influencing the independent filmmakers of the 1960s and 1970s. My photo works, objects, and installations I made after my time as an experimental filmmaker are films edited more in spacial rather than in linear timeline, and so are my later performances and video installations (which you can walk through as well as sit and watch) that I started from 2007 on — the so-called “Microdramas.”
I do filmic works, because they by themselves take on their own lives, like ships that travel alone or again like the sick child, who is suddenly cured and grown-up and doesn’t need the parent any longer. The Animals is the first feature film that I just finished. For one year I didn’t know which way is up and which way is down in all my work on it. Now the film doesn’t need me any longer — maybe from time to time we’ll meet for a quick embrace. I am proud of how it developed.
RC: Have you been influenced by anyone or anything in particular?
KC: “The cinema of attraction” and Tom Gunning’s essay on it (with it he also invented the very term, “The cinema of attractions”) still keeps on influencing my works, how I use and show them. I could name many others, too, and the number is growing: Peter Sellers, Jeremy Deller, Karl Valentin, Punch and Judy theater, 1970s television formats, dictionaries, Franz West, John Cassavetes, Gena Rowlands, Cindy Sherman, revues, Richard Prince, Peter Kubelka, Owen Land, Amelie von Wulffen, Eva Menasse, reading theater plays …
RC: What challenges are unique to your process?
KC: With The Animals one challenge I appreciate a lot is to be able to bring together actors, who in other contexts would probably not have been casted in the same production. I don’t do that for a conceptual reason, but for what I want to happen and for what I want to see in the end.
RC: If you could own any work of art, what would it be?
KC: I would collect objects of art that can be applied, used, lived in and with. Toys by Lionel Feininger, porcelain by Picasso, garlands by Manuel Gorkiewicz. I would have different tailors produce the clothes that I design. Also a light installation by Mandla Reuter, some furniture by Franz West, “L’origine du monde” by Gustave Courbet, theater plays, performances, and music by different artists and directors whom I would be able to pay for the staging that I’d invite guests to … Quite a royal collection.
RC: So what is art anyway?
KC: The English term “art” comes from the Latin ars (artis) f., meaning “art,” but also “skill” and “science.” (The German term Kunst (art), comes from the word können, to be able to.) Until the 19th century, an artist in the German language was everybody who was part of the faculty of free arts, which also included the faculty of philosophy. With the French term artiste in the beginning of the 19th century and the fashion of vaudeville acts and varietiés, this term disappeared in German from the world of the “high arts,” but stayed in the world of the popular performing arts. From then on, the word ‘artist’ in German-speaking countries meant circus artist, trapeze artist, and acrobat. That tells us a lot about the status of art today, established in times of modernism — that for instance modern art should no longer be connected with skill or craft, that modern art better not have anything to do with entertainment or associate itself with a group of people or a collective experience. High art, from then on, is not social, but is invented by one singular modern genius. I would go even further to observe in this small and slightly precocious history of terminology that the general attitude towards art is a much more playful one in the US. I want an art that again includes craftwork and junk and that does not distinguish between performing and visual, high and low art, or any other hypocritical bureaucracy. I want art that is not democratic, but infinite, highly complex and extravagant.
RC: Who should be interviewed next?
KC: I am inviting Mario Mentrup to be the next person to answer these questions. If you Google him you may find out that Mr. Mentrup is an actor, director, musician, and writer living in Berlin. I would just say he is an artist. We met when I asked him to play a part in my video installation “Microdrama #11” (2014). We then worked together on The Animals, which he co-directed and where he embodies the terrific acting coach Lou Mario. He was also in charge of the film’s score with Pasadena Projekt. Working, thinking, and creating together with Mario is enhancing — no excuses and no restrictions: Get rid of what holds you back! Always give more than you can! Slapstick is highly vaunted.
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