Vika Kirchenbauer

COOL FOR YOU but not everybody: Vika Kirchenbauer talks community, institutions + the violence of looking

10 February 2017

The gaze comes in many guises. There’s the colonial and patriarchal one, of course, but there’s also the broader institutional one, of which there are many types of institutions. There’s community, for a start, a kind of participatory, almost ritualistic practice predicated on conformity. Then there’s mass surveillance, hierarchy and the popular notion of ‘normativity’ – museums, schools, art galleries; hospitals, prisons, psychiatry. For Vika Kirchenbauer there’s a violence inherent in all of these social constructions, and a complex network of connections and relationships that create a confluence of elements that are ultimately oppressive.

COOL FOR YOU, ‘ GIVEN YOUR CONVENIENT ABSENCE (2016). Video still. Courtesy Vika Kirchenbauer.

Hence, the Berlin-based artist’s COOL FOR YOU music production project. It’s part of a wider creative practice that includes video and performance, yielding insight and examination into power and self-understanding within all this gaze. For the first video premiered on aqnb to accompany her second EP, MOOD MANAGEMENT – released via Berlin’s Creamcake label on February 2 – the frame of a thermal vision camera is poised on two colourless people in action. It’s hard to tell what they’re doing, but it seems sexual, at least intimate, and there’s an ambiguous substance being consumed from various parts of the body throughout. One can only assume.

“The materiality is unclear, just because it’s reduced to heat and we don’t have any information on colour or a more detailed understanding of the texture,” says Kirchenbauer, via Skype from Berlin, webcam-to-webcam, “so whatever associations, or suspicions we have will be had much more, although that might not be the case if you look at it outside of thermal vision.” The video for the ‘MOOD MANAGEMENT’ title-track is one of an ongoing series by Kirchenbauer, which includes ‘GIVEN YOUR CONVENIENT ABSENCE’ and ‘SHE WHOSE BLOOD IS CLOTTING IN MY UNDERWEAR’ – grey-scale heat signatures of people moving beneath, or looking back at this military technology used in warfare. The music that drives them is equal parts brutal and compelling, contorted samples of human harmonies (Sacred Harp choir music to be precise) languishing in a milieu of heavy breathing and nervous rhythms. It’s hard to tell where these vocal samples come from but their dissonant tones imply someplace unfamiliar.“The new video talks more about the material quality of things and interaction, as well as the outside gaze and reading of that; our automatic associations and responses to things. And how – through our suspicions, or readings, or associations – that can be triggered and add this strange firing that doesn’t really succeed in the sense of either disgust, or interest, or joy. It just stays at a high level of intensity.”

COOL FOR YOU, ‘SHE WHOSE BLOOD IS CLOTTING IN MY UNDERWEAR’ (2016). Video still. Courtesy Vika Kirchenbauer.

**I’m curious about this suspicion of institutions, did you study?

Vika Kirchenbauer: No, I tried briefly but it didn’t really work. Also, I don’t come from a background where it was ever really considered a possibility to study, so I think I have been intimidated by institutions of education for a long time. I ended up actively studying in a ‘prestigious’ school for two years but then I figured it was not for me… But there are so many different institutions that are not only art institutions. There are systems of psychiatry, or medical, legal institutions that I have also had to deal with in relation to gender stuff that have also shaped me as a person; the hierarchy of having to explain oneself and what kind of hierarchy that builds and how a person can be dependent on validation of institutions, and of being convincing enough in order to get what one needs.

There are so many different institutions in our society and I think they all normalize, and discipline, and leave marks on people, in very different ways. I think it’s particularly important to stress that, with a particular focus on class, (or other marginalising social markers that also, again, often relate to class): how we relate to those different institutions, and to which institutions.

** I first heard of your work through that performance you did at NGBK called COOL FOR YOU: SEPARATISM, can you tell me a bit more about the concept behind this?

VK: That performance had a lot to do with symbolic institutional inclusion and power struggles/violence within feminism and something that at the time I named “casualties of conviction.” But that separatism thing also connects to Sacred Harp music in a way that is interesting, because it’s set up in a way that does not assume an audience; everybody who sings is participating. You cannot be there and be in any other position than that of the singer. Of course, you might end up not singing but you will be amongst the singers, and, in a way, it’s a metaphor for how communities work.

COOL FOR YOU, ‘MOOD MANAGEMENT’ (2017). Video still. Courtesy Vika Kirchenbauer.

I think there is the idea of inclusion there, in the sense that it’s not about how well people sing  — because it’s meant to be God playing the different vocal chords of the people like a harp — so it will always be right, as God apparently favours passion over skill. That, I find remarkable, that musically-speaking there’s a lot of room for dissonance, although on a more general level that’s often not so much the case in such groups or communities. There is also obviously a strong sense of exclusion because it’s only for those actively participating under a certain set of rules, which also speaks to a larger sense of how belonging works in groups and subcultures, or communities. There is a certain set of expectations, or almost ritualistic behaviour that is demanded of those who want to belong in order to be considered part of the group. That, to me, is a fascinating sense of separatism and conditions of inclusion. Who gets to sing, however poorly, and who’s excluded from the choir?

** I did some reading on Sacred Harp, and I found its position within colonialism to be a complex one…

VK: The point is that many Sacred Harp songs stem from the early 18th century in England, before the sounds were brought into the US where Sacred Harp then originated. The first book of Sacred Harp songs collects music, or material to be sung in that set up. It developed between 1760 and 1820, or something like that, so it is very, very old and obviously didn’t just originate in North America out of the blue but comes from England through settlers. The reason why it sounds different to us now, and has this kind of an ‘exotic’ feel, I think, is that the harmonies are a bit different. They de-emphasize the thirds of a scale and favour harmonies that go with the fourths or fifths. My argument is that harmonies and music have been used immensely as a form of colonizing. So it’s not only been Bible texts, or physical violence but – especially in Christian missions but also in State colonialism, which has a history of over 500 years – music has played an important part.

I think it’s strange that people in the West nowadays can look at ‘world music’ and understand it as something that is ‘authentic,’ and ‘untouched,’ and ‘real,’ and ‘different,’ and not bear in mind that, of course, over centuries music has also been used as a colonizer, harmonies have been used to colonize and they have obviously left influences. All these kinds of music have existed in relation to each other. If we can listen to something now that comes from parts of the world that feel ‘remote’ to us, of course that link and that kind of economy is only possible because there is a history of colonialism. We cannot think that colonialism has not impacted the music, or the people that have been colonized. That’s why I find it interesting to go back to very old, white, Protestant Christian music and look at those harmonies and see how they might, or might not have also influenced the course of music in very different places in the world (or perhaps been influenced by them, of course).

COOL FOR YOU, ‘SHE WHOSE BLOOD IS CLOTTING IN MY UNDERWEAR’ (2016). Video still. Courtesy Vika Kirchenbauer.

** Now that I think about it, your EP and your music is really, very cohesive. Everything applies, in that it all relates, musically and conceptually, in a really interesting way. Especially, also with your visual work, these associations, like talking about institutions, while the word ‘institution’ can apply to so many different things.

VK: It’s important to me that there is a sense of atmosphere or aesthetics that is kind of ambiguous, that there is some sense of violence and hysteria but also almost a kind of ecstasy or enthusiasm that’s uncanny, in a way. Depending on how you listen to it, it can also be sad but still almost like a drug or something. I want to craft things in a way so that, affectively, one can connect with them in different moments or moods, in quite different ways and discover different contradicting elements in terms of affect and emotion.

** So you take this Sacred Harp music, which already is loaded with contradictions. Where even beyond the exclusion of someone that isn’t participating, there are also people, I’m assuming, that aren’t even given the option of participating in the first place…

VK: Based on their faith or for other reasons institutionalised churches or community churches exclude people, obviously…

** There’s this other element to it, where you’re basically recreating this choir live by pointing this infrared camera at your audience. They don’t have a choice and also it’s achieved via technology. It’s this idea of surveillance — self-surveillance and surveillance of others, even, within small communities, which runs through your work.

VK: Yeah, most of it deals with or discusses looking as a violent act, which doesn’t make my work less violent, I just accentuate or discuss ways of looking back, or acts of looking back. I emphasize that violence, as well, and I think in performance setups, where people are used to not just look at something but also un-look at themselves, that’s interesting to actually shift that dynamic and discuss what is actually being looked at, who is an agent in the situation? Does it need to be different, or how can we actually deal with that situation?

COOL FOR YOU, ‘MOOD MANAGEMENT’ (2017). Video still. Courtesy Vika Kirchenbauer.

With the infrared vision, it makes the audience look at each other through that enhanced gaze. I think shifting that focal point away from the stage and having people look at each other through technology, that’s interesting to me. And of course, I work with very particular technology of thermal vision or infrared cameras. It is mostly used in military or border control, so this kind of camera that I use is what is being used at the EU land borders to detect heat signatures at night, of people who want to enter a country. I deliberately use that technology and bring it into contexts where most of the people do not have to deal with any of that kind of gaze — or where the stakes of inclusion or exclusion are very low, in comparison.

**Talking about the gaze, and the violence of the gaze, is this something that you personally have experienced and where that interest comes from?

VK: Yeah, I think so. In a lot of ways, whether I perform on stage or not does not make much of a difference in the way that I am being looked at, and also since my understanding of myself, of course works a lot through the reflection through others. I think I have learned to look at myself through the eyes of others but, also, you obviously cannot know for certain how someone perceives you, how they look at you. So it also instills some sense of suspicion in you, in a way, you always presume to know how somebody looks at you, and why. I think psychologically that does something special to someone who has learnt to look at themselves through the eyes of others. I think a reaction towards the inability to blend-in as ‘normal’ is always there. There’s always this moment of being aware of one’s difference and that is constantly confirmed by the way people look. It’s kind of a moment where you’re constantly on stage, and that kind of ‘off-stage moment’ is not really happening.

**Do you think that ‘off-stage moment’ is possible if you found the right community?

VK: No, not at all. I think that sense of judgment is a fundamental problem. When people realise that the Other is not themselves, then everyone gets angry. I think that, in any kind of context, it should lead people to, not accept difference but to actually accept not understanding someone else, or not fully grasping or getting someone. We’re all different and that’s where a lot of problems come from.

I think for people to get that things are complicated — and that different people and different aspects of social markers they bear come with certain privileges and privations that also play out differently, at different stages of time in their lives — it’s very hard to deal with, it seems. There’s also a lot of trauma, envy and hurt in people and I think it’s honestly hard for most to actually deal with the fact that the Other is Other and not ourselves. It’s frustrating the we can probably not understand the Other, but it might then, perhaps, be preferable not to make that the basic condition in order to legitimize and validate someone, to understand their suffering.

Only once they can argue and make their suffering understandable to us, we then legitimise their suffering and generously try to include them. I don’t think this is how it should work but this has been the history of feminist struggle, for instance, or its internal organizing logic, in which it confirms the hierarchy much more if those with more privilege or power have to be convinced of other people’s privation or suffering, in order to generously say ‘yes, I now get it… please step inside.’

I think that kind of understanding and that kind of disclosure that is expected from the one who is different, exactly that entitlement, is actually where the hierarchy gets stabilized, in a sense. That’s also in acknowledging that, apart from the gaze and the violence of looking, there’s also that violence of understanding.**

Vika Kirchenbauer’s MOOD MANAGEMENT EP was released via Berlin’s Creamcake label on February 2, 2017.

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3hd Festival 2016 lineup announcement, Oct 11 – 15

18 August 2016

Berlin-based event-organisers Creamcake have announced the full programme for their second edition of 3hd Festival, happening across venues including HAU Hebbel am Ufer, OHM, and Vierte Welt, in Berlin and running October 11 to 15.

This year’s theme follows the title ‘There is nothing left but the Future?’, one which resists a dominant trend towards “speculating on the future, instead offering potential solutions for fixing the problems of the present.” The artists, musicians, producers, editors, writers and academics involved in the as-ever impressive 3hd lineup include the likes of Claire Tolan, Coucou Chloé, DJ Paypal, Easter, HVAD, Inga Copeland as Lolina, Rianna Jade Parker, Ruth Angel Edwards, TCF, Uniiqu3, Vika Kirchenbauer, and many more, as well as media partners AQNB with a cross-platform video, performance and discussion presentation with Video in Common titled ‘Staying Present’ on October 12.

The festival carries on its impetus as a “hybrid project” dispersed across online and offline artworks and events that include performances, presentations, installations and an exhibition offline during the five day program, as well as texts, music releases and cross-platform video and animation projects released online in the lead up. This first announcement comes accompanied by an essay called ‘Joy 2016‘ by writer and academic Adam Harper speculating and the dangers of polarised extremes, agendas and (mis)interpretations when it comes to art, taking Beethoven’s immortal ‘Ode to Joy’ composition via Wendy Carlos’ arrangement for Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 dystopian cult film A Clockwork Orange.

See the 3hd Festival website for the full programme.**

Adam Harper, 'Joy 2016', pub. by 3hd/Creamcake. Artwork by Sam Lubicz.
Adam Harper, ‘Joy 2016’, pub. by 3hd/Creamcake. Artwork by Sam Lubicz.
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‘Accessing Economies’: an AQNB x Video in Common screening rundown

22 July 2016

With the accelerated pace of commodification and consumption of marginal identities (and spaces) globally, comes the question of, and tension between complicity and resistance in political art and social critique. Discourse is developing beyond ideas of visibility and representation to notions of assimilation into existing cultural paradigms, which is why AQNB was in Los Angeles to present the ‘Accessing Economies: Engagement & Withdrawal’ screening and reading at Club Pro LA on July 17 to interrogate the politics of identity within commercial or institutional spheres. 

It’s part of an ongoing series of screening, reading, performance and discussion events lead by editor Jean Kay and organised in collaboration with video production partners Video in Common, and follows similar events already held in London and Berlin –two key cultural centres in the art editorial platform’s network. Titled ‘The Future Is Here, It’s Just Not Evenly Distributed’ and ‘At the Backend’, together these earlier programmes interrogated the systems and infrastructures embedded in networked communication, and how this affects distribution, flows of information and power, as well as language, community-building and identity formation.

Meanwhile, ‘Accessing Economies’ carries on that conversation into the consequences of structural affiliations as both inspiring and influencing critical art practice, and creating new markets. Maria Gorodeckaya, for example, inverts the gaze through the lens of female sexual desire in ‘do it for me’, while Vika Kirchenbauer‘s queer subjects confront the high art voyeur with ‘YOU ARE BORING!’: “I mean, who wouldn’t want to fuck a work of conceptual art?”

Evan Ifekoya talks marginality as a lived position for AQNB/ViC editorial video commission ‘Genuine. Original. Authentic.’ and Sarah Boulton‘s poetry, read by  Ulijona Odišarija, passively lingers in the margins, outside of valuation, by dealing with what the artist describes as “what you don’t need to say, and not saying it”. Imran Perretta‘s ‘Untitled (work in progress)’ explores the privilege of apprehension and self-analysis for a work in progress video, while Ann Hirsch and Cristine Brache present two videos that concisely and consciously apply for access to systems of power and control, only to complicate and disrupt them when awarded it.  

Below is the full programme of video, audio and stills of the works presented in their running order:

Maria Gorodeckaya: ‘do it for me’ (2016) [5:11]

Moscow-born, London-based artist Maria Gorodeckaya explores the nature of women’s objectification,
reclaiming the gaze through the lens of the camera and re-directing it onto the male body. Inverting sexual power dynamics, Gorodeckaya’s work expands into poetry, sculpture and installation, building on her interests in desire and its suppression by religious, economic and institutional means.

Evan Ifekoya: ‘Genuine. Original. Authentic.’ (2015) [8:21 min]

London-based artist Evan Ifekoya discusses their ongoing music video series, questioning the notion of cultural or personal authenticity and what it means to be entertaining. Also working with collage, knitting and drawing, Ifekoya talks about deconstructing pervasive gender binaries, expressing the banality and importance of physical ‘making’.

Vika Kirchenbauer: ‘YOU ARE BORING!’ (2015) [13:44], ‘COOL FOR YOU – GIVEN YOUR CONVENIENT ABSENCE’ (2016) [2:25]

Berlin-based artist Vika Kirchenbauer looks at the transference of (certain) bodies and politics from subcultural to high art spaces and the new dynamics that emerge. In complicating ideas of performance and shifting the spectator’s perspective back on themselves, Kirchenbauer questions how power and self-understanding is renegotiated within an institutional framework.

Sarah Boulton: Poetry read by Ulijona Odišarija [2:59 min]

London-based artist and poet Sarah Boulton presents moments of inclusivity, engaging and implicating its audience directly or with distance, or both. Friend and fellow artist Ulijona Odišarija reads as a single clear voice without embellishment, expressing a certain creative ambience around perceptions and consciousness in relation to objects that refuse signification and thus capital value.

Imran Perretta: ‘Untitled (work in progress)’ (2016) [5:00 min]

London-based artist Imran Perretta explores the liminal space between socially and culturally constructed spaces, as well as the role of the body within that. Inscribed as they are with external assumptions, prejudices and, above all, concerns, Perretta’s film is an interrogation of white-washed narratives of privilege and their ideologies of self-actualisation, described in an aqnb review of his performance work as, “the over analyzed body in stark contrast to the under analyzed body”.

Imran Perretta, 'Untitled (work in progress)' (2016). Video still. Courtesy the artist.
Imran Perretta, ‘Untitled (work in progress)’ (2016). Video still. Courtesy the artist.

Ann Hirsch: ‘Here For You (Or my Brief Love Affair with Frank Maresca)’ (2011) [14:06]

LA-based artist Ann Hirsch interrogates (networked) media and its false assumptions of personal freedom. Placing herself in the externally constructed environment of a reality TV programme and its culture of constant surveillance, Hirsch surrenders to the mechanism of production, where she and 14 other contestants vie for the affections of ‘Frank the Bachelor’ on camera with no control on how they’re viewed, edited or represented.

Cristine Brache:, ‘Sequence 02 1’ (2016) [15:56 min], ‘finally people are reading about me’ [00:14 min] (2016)
[00:14 min]

Toronto-based artist and poet Cristine Brache shows marginal women’s bodies and their reproduction as objects in circulation. In complicating and questioning economic, political and sexual power relations as both oppressed and empowered, Brache’s at times fetishistic work expresses a tension between aspiring for access and visibility, and the means by which one achieves it.

aqnb x Video in Common’s screening ‘Accessing Economies: Engagement & Withdrawal’ was on at Club Pro Los Angeles, July 17, 2016.

Header image: Vika Kirchenbauer, ‘YOU ARE BORING!’ (2016) @ Club Pro Los Angeles. Screening view.

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aqnb x Video in Common @ Club Pro LA, Jul 17

6 July 2016

aqnb and Video in Common (ViC) are presenting screening, performance and discussion event, ‘Accessing Economies: Engagement & Withdrawal’ at Los Angeles’ Club Pro LA on July 17.

As discourse develops beyond ideas of visibility and representation to notions of assimilation into existing cultural paradigms, aqnb editor Jean Kay will be presenting a selection of artists’ works that considers the consequences of structural affiliations and institutionalisation as both inspiring and influencing critical art practice.

‘Accessing Economies’ follows similar events organised by the art editorial platform and video production partner ViC in London and Berlin two key cultural centres in the aqnb network. Titled ‘The Future Is Here, It’s Just Not Evenly Distributed’ and ‘At the Backend’, together these programmes interrogated the systems and infrastructures embedded in networked communication, and how this affects distribution, flows of information and power, as well as language, community-building and identity formation.

Artists and works featured in this edition include an aqnb/ViC editorial video commission with Evan Ifekoya, video works from Vika Kirchenbauer, Imran Perretta, Ann Hirsch, Cristine Brache and Maria Gorodeckaya, as well as a live Skype poetry reading from Sarah Boulton

See the FB event page for further details.**

Imran Perretta '5 per cent'(2015). Detail. Sixty Eight, Copenhagen.
Imran Perretta ‘5 per cent'(2015). Detail. Sixty Eight, Copenhagen.

Header image: Vika Kirchenbauer, ‘COOL FOR YOU – GIVEN YOUR CONVENIENT ABSENCE’ (2016). Video still. Courtesy the artist.

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Seeing + being seen by Vika Kirchenbauer’s ‘COOL FOR YOU’

6 June 2016

Gaze is a recurring trope within art, it has been demonised, fetishized and recently techno-ized. Vika Kirchenbauer’s ‘COOL FOR YOU: SEPARATISM’ performance at Berlin’s NGBK on May 20 gives us gaze like we had never seen it before.

Opening NO PLAY – Feminist Training Camp, running May 21 to June 24, Kirchenbauer responds to a program dedicated to creating a space of collective organisation, knowledge and experience through intersectionality in a collaboration between electronic post-Vaporwave beats, thermal cameras, herself and her audience. The Berlin-based artist’s performance uses the traditional protocol of a performer-to-audience scenario, yet the tailored destruction of a singular viewing power obliterates the ability to focus on a single body.

COOL FOR YOU, 'SEPARATISM' (2016). Photo by Merja Hannikainen. Performance view. Courtesy Vika Kirchenbauer + NGBK, Berlin.
COOL FOR YOU, ‘SEPARATISM’ (2016). Photo by Merja Hannikainen. Performance view. Courtesy Vika Kirchenbauer + NGBK, Berlin.

On entering the dusty humid courtyard, attendees are immediately confronted by other guests and not the performer. The architecture of the site offers a temporary forced stage for those who enter, as they quickly seat themselves, back to the wall around the four sides of the space. Perched on the edge’s concrete curb, the audience faces nothing but the void of the inactive patio, and each other. The side door opens for a brief moment as Kirchenbauer herself emerges draped in black, swiftly attaching a Motorola smartphone to the railings that line the windows. She exits again, leaving us outside, alone with the device and the sound of the heavy metal door closing behind her.

Then the music starts, melodic cosmic sounds and beats fill the space as people edge closer to the door and the listless, yet monitoring phone. Their faces emerge on a digital projection behind the grated windows —a thermal camera attached to the Motorola collecting and recording temperature data through infrared technology, remediating it to its audience. Acrid yellow skin tones with blood-red lips, blurred and pixelated emerge from a blue-toned background, projected from inside the room, behind the window, where Kirchenbauer is stood with her MPC music machine. The audience is now present but only a mirage of the thermal data crowd that stands in the screen next to Kirchenbauer, their flesh and blood versions wait outside peering through the window. Eyes strain to see through the panes of glass that are now rattling with the heavy bass line —there’s a dash of peroxide and turquoise hair, Kirchenbauer’s, and a pair of golden sneakers—the artist’s hands swiftly move over the drum machine and the crowd begins to sway; hot and shut-out but not alone. The music is a mixture of industrial drum beats and melodic, pitched up chanting samples that move through scale patterns before they break to a scream. It hammers through your body slightly out of rhythm at times but the nostalgic drops offer your body moments of old skool rave euphoria.

With song titles like ‘I Found Them Staring At Me’ and ‘Emotional Paralysis’, Kirchenbauer acknowledges contemporary western society’s gaze rhetoric between humans and technology. When you Skype your best friend in New York, the camera sees you before they do, or when you tag someone on Facebook, or take cash out from an ATM, technology is always observing. Yet, we generally only concentrate on what has been seen or is seen, the final portrait. Checking our selfies for imperfections, or scanning crowd shots for proof of attendance, we generally plagiarise technology or ignore the programmed autonomy of it.

Kirchenbauer works with the machine simply by mapping clearly the senses of seeing, through temperature, sound and the crowd as a unit. She becomes one with the technology performing alongside it. Presenting the visual senses of the image itself as the ultimate conclusion of seeing. ‘COOL FOR YOU’ creates a collective body of observation. The crowd looks at Kirchenbauer. The machine looks at us. We look at the thermal data interpretation of us via another machine, the projector. Listening to the collaborative chant of abstraction from Kirchenbauer’s sound desk, the music and machine in unison, becomes one.**

Vika Kirchenbauer’s ‘COOL FOR YOU: SEPARATISM’ performance was on at Berlin’s NGBK on May 22, 2016.

Header image: Vika Kirchenbauer, ‘COOL FOR YOU: SEPARATISM’ @ NGBK. Performance view. Courtesy the artist.


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