Vienna-based visual artists Markus Hanakam and Roswitha Schuller recently visited Duke to work with the Building Duke Bass Connections project and to present some of their own work. Both Hanakam and Schuller are graduates of the Austrian University of Applied Arts and work at the intersection of sculpture and video, emphasizing the shifts of form and matter in their “artefacts.” Previously, they have exhibited work in Moscow, Prague and Paris. The Chronicle spoke with the duo about their creative process and their impressions of American colleges. The interview has been translated from German and shortened for clarity.
TC: What brought you to Duke?
HS: Actually, it’s rather practical — we have a good friend from Germany who spent 10 years in Vienna as a curator and has now been a Ph.D. student in the Department of Visual Arts for two years. She got us in touch with her department and now we’re linked to the Building Duke project as part of a self-organized artist residency. For us, it’s the first time that we get to see a North American elite university and the concept is still a little foreign to us. We do travel a lot for our videos, but interestingly, the Duke campus’ architecture is just as exotic to us as something in Siberia. We enjoy traveling to places that we are not perfectly familiar with — there’s a kind of “contact shock” you go through and that sparks creative potential.
TC: What were your experiences with the Building Duke project and how does it relate to your art?
HS: We were granted full access to the library and all the archival material, which is fantastic. So much of it still needs to be sorted and we keep stumbling across fascinating stuff, like old letters, and it’s just been great to dive into this earlier era from when the campus was built.
TC: Both of you have an academic background — do you keep in touch with academia as practicing artists?
HS: We often make art that works in its relation to art itself, so we always also think about the ways in which other artists work and what their strategies are. Not that we blindly copy anything, but because of that we still give talks, partake in symposia and remain interested in research-based art. However, we like to exploit that for our art and keep an eye on artistic conventions, similar to the Building Duke project: Here you have a style of architecture that is based on certain conventions, and the development of such a “politics of the visual” is something we want to explore. Unfortunately, many gallery shows put little emphasis on the artistic content of things, so being here allows us to retain an intellectual twist.
TC: You work in so many different media — like video and sculpture — was that a gradual development over your career or is that an issue that keeps fluctuating to this day?
HS: We’re quite influenced here by our professors in art school. Initially, we studied sculpture and primarily, we’d still describe ourselves as sculptors, even though we now work with totally different media. We try not to work in sculptural conventions, like with static forms on a pedestal or using "timeless" materials like stone. Often we’ll have actors or laymen interacting with objects that we put in a certain context such as Duke’s campus, for example — this is what drives our choice of medium and often that is film. Selling video art, however, isn’t all that easy, not to speak of making a living from it. The more residual items you have, like objects, photographs or drawings, those are much more attractive for the art market. So it also has its perks because you can convey a grand impression in only a few minutes. A few years ago we were at Art Basel in Miami and our video made it into Art in America, alongside Marina Abramovic.
TC: How do you choose your material? You seem to use a lot of plastic and only few durable, solid materials.
HS: We prefer the term "artefact" rather than "object" because we take them from everyday life. Not in the sense of a classic "objet trouvé" because we clearly alter them but we enjoy recycling materials we encounter everyday, especially plastic, since it’s just so adaptable and cheap. Styrofoam and sequins are other classics, just like inflatables.
TC: Whenever hands come into the frames of your videos, they seem to be clad in white gloves. Why is that?
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HS: Art transforms anything into something valuable or auratic and the gloves contribute to that because of their museum character. Carl Gustav Jung, the Swiss psychoanalyst, wrote an essay on alchemy where he describes the alchemist as "operating"on a certain opus. We saw that as an analogy to the sculptural process where the sculptor elevates the material into something new, even though the material doesn’t change — there is only a mental procedure that alters it. The material has already been transformed as part of the capitalist process, but we try to reverse that and to point towards the object’s origin.
TC: There seems to be no storytelling or no larger narrative arc in most of your work. How do you combine that with a campus whose relationship to its own history is so unorthodox?
HS: We found it fascinating when the people involved with Building Duke told us that this style of collegial Gothic architecture was once considered to be timeless — we don’t share that feeling at all, since neo-Gothicism is so deeply connotated with Romanticism in Europe. So we try to entirely divide Julian Abele’s thought from the campus and to see it more like a toolkit to build a vastly different story. Our video will not contain a single hint that this campus is Duke’s, and in our slides that have text on them there won’t be a story either. We try to reduce the history to a degree where every beholder has to build their own story and is put in a position where they are at a critical distance.