American Psycho: Bret Easton Ellis’ bleak portrait of modern capitalism is a world populated by high-powered male ‘hardbodies’ who, essentially, do nothing. It’s the performative affect of their jobs that features, the accoutrements and status symbols that drive them as they navigate their own corporate malaise with a psychotic twist.
That’s an idea and an aesthetic that seems to come through in Berlin-based Czech artist Martin Kohout’s work, especially prevalent in his current exhibition at Exile, 5006 years of daylight and silent adaptation. Among other pieces, the show includes a series of “Daylight” lamps –used as a remedy for the depressive symptoms of Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) –displayed in the main room of the Kreuzberg gallery. This kind of light therapy is supposed to enter through the retina, so the lamps are usually constructed to sit on a desk. Ideally, you would absorb such light from directly above, in the morning and at a close range for the best effects. Kohout’s presentation of them seems to counteract this intended use; they’re placed on the floor and covered with clear plastic. Additionally, the windows of the space are pasted with a modified version of the “Daylight” instructional manual –since published through his own TLTRPreß –which blocks out the real, natural sunlight that would otherwise flood in from the courtyard.
Kohout tells us that the first edition of this project, ‘Boosted MCK24.OG’, was designed for the Frankfurt offices of corporate consulting firm McKinsey & Company. Invited to create a piece for their workplace, he used the opportunity as a testing ground for the show at Exile. “At first”, he says at a café near the gallery, “I wasn’t sure if I should do it, if I wanted to be associated with these people. But I had been reading about it a lot, sociologically, and I realized this is the only chance I can get so close to them, and not just read about it.”
The McKinsey contingent of this so-called Boosted series (not open to the general public) will stay in the office for a year. The lamps are timed to go on for two hours in the morning, but Kohout says the office employees usually unplug the timer and sit in front of it on their coffee breaks to absorb the euphoric rays: “I do appreciate this little hack they perform to the piece,” he adds later via email, “breaking the distance between an artwork and a functional contribution to the space, potential advice to the advisers.”
The show at Exile investigates these absurd consumer items that seek to make life under capitalism easier, that help you not only to survive but also to produce at a higher rate. The Boosted lamps and Kohout’s Survival Guides –a series of ‘self-help’ book covers masked in “privacy foil” and also exhibited there –share a common thread with his wider aesthetic interests. The lamps are devices imbued with the optimism of its bright light but often referred to as SAD lamps, while the automatic, gestural pencil drawings of the Survival Guides are presented among the black walls and distanced cold perfection of the Exile space. It’s that contrast of personal spontaneity and industrial precision that underpins 5006 years of daylight and silent adaptation –the human face behind hardline productivity.
Not surprisingly then, an interview with Kohout is as conceptually loaded as his work and creative interests. From here, correspondence extends well beyond an initial chat in person on a typically dark January afternoon in Berlin, to an email back-and-forth of ideological expansion and factual clarification on his ideas of hibernation, productivity and the absurdity of corporate branding.
What’s the thinking behind the Boosted series in your Exile show?
Martin Kohout: When I got the lamps for the first version, the booklet said “Daylight Manual” on the cover. Then I noticed that the manufacturer is called “Zero Plus Limited”, the street address is New Territories, and the article number 123. I thought: “Is this a joke?” It was all too good.
The show is super seasonal in a way. The lamps are used mainly in winter, when there is a lack of daylight exposure. And it was also weirdly fitting for the last Exile show at its current location. I was really interested in the lamps because what you get from them is what we all already know. Because people use them to substitute going out into the fresh air.
Humans still do hibernate to a certain extent. If you look back centuries, in the winter there was a big scarcity of food and sources of energy. If you’re a bit depressed, you eat less and sleep more in order to survive it better.
The late-night culture in Berlin means you have such a small window of daylight hours, waking up so late…
MK: What fascinates me about the lamps is the broader idea of how you can calibrate your body. A part of the ideological background is ‘productivity’. People don’t want to be depressed or sleepy, called lazy. They want to be productive.
Most of us in the western world are working at a desk facing a computer, physically performing very much the same activities, mentally doing various sorts of managerial jobs, connected to others randomly around the world and around the clock. Which radically blurs time zones, distances etc. So let’s bring the daylight to yourself!
The lamps should be used in the morning, to simulate natural cycles and affect your circadian rhythm, because your body listens to outside signals called Zeitgeber —from German: literally, the ‘time givers.’ Those can be for example the rhythm of your day activities, or, more importantly, the times you get in contact with natural light, from when, and for how long. So the trick is to simulate early sunrise and make your body assume it’s Spring or Summertime.
Yes, it is natural to feel this depression that’s since been identified as a ‘disorder’ that we have to cure, in order to maintain productivity levels.
MK: It’s a little unacceptable to even complain about these kinds of things, when you have devices and drinks to help you with it. The most effective of these lamps is the one that literally wakes you up.
We should just have the SAD lamps built into our computer screens directly.
MK: Have you heard of these things like f.lux or EasyEyez? They’re an application that change the colour temperature of your screen throughout the day. There is a lot of artificial light surrounding us constantly that can function as this background noise influencing your circadian rhythm, that prevents you from calming down because our body is a kind of a clock as well, so this helps you to ease into sleep at night.
This is an interesting trend in your work, dealing with the absurdities of corporate branding aesthetics, as well the hand modeling in your piece ‘Skinsmooth’. They are so disturbing in a way…
MK: I don’t want my work to function as an extension of corporate branding. The ‘Skinsmooth’ piece came from my interest in the topic of hygiene, which later connected with interest in the conditions of work, in Western capitalism in particular. There is not much time schedule in the workplace now, in this kind of precarious and mainly cognitive labour. There is an expectation to always be available, via email, phone. You don’t request emails to be sent to you but yet you are required to respond in time. It’s a forced dialogue with a pretty fixed expectation.
Everyone is assumed to be attached to their devices and non-response is near impossible.
MK: Yes. At McKinsey I talked to people who experience these conditions in an extreme form – working up to 70hrs a week and often being abroad 4 days a week, Monday to Thursday. You’d need a handbook on how to deal with jetlag. The lamps aid the process of putting you in this structure, as part of a machine, because your metabolic clock is usually out of sync with your local environment. Well-oiled bodies…
I saw your performance at Exile. Is this performance or music element something you do regularly?
MK: It was the first time I performed as TOLE live. The music helps me to approach my work differently, in a more intuitive way. There’s also a recent series of videos called ‘Cocoa’ that are kind of abstract animations developed from videos on my smartphone camera. I started approaching them in a similar way to making my music.
You work with a lot of different media… lots of text as well.
MK: I have a short-fiction text, which is in the Exile show, about these 24/7 work conditions that is excerpted on the window covering. I studied cinematography before I came to Berlin in 2008. I think a lot of things I do I understand as scripts or instructions. Sometimes I just give instructions to be executed, or just show the scripts of things that have been realized without my presence, but the logic of these instructions you can repeat informs most of my work.
For example the piece called ‘The Script Involving a Language Teacher’ has been realized three times in different cities but I have not seen it actually happen, there is no record. It’s up to the teacher, whether or how he or she deals with the script.
Also my Youtube channel Watching Martin Kohout was developed from an instruction that I decided to perform myself.
It’s a project I like for the fact that I could not foresee how it would evolve and even though I stopped taking more videos, it’s still sort of growing. I recently read about these Samsung Smart TVs with a camera in them, that there was a security hole in the code, where people could actually hack in and watch others watching TV.
And what about these ‘Sticks’ that you do? I saw one at the V4ULT show last year. They seem beautifully made for a purpose but also simultaneously bizarrely anti-functional…
MK: There are two series of the sticks, Class A and Class B. They are made of aluminum tubes, various bike or sport grip tapes, leather lines for wristbands and painted at a professional paint shop. Each is unique as if made for a specific person as if ordered from a stick-maker.
The Class B are made of tubes I just found in a scrap yard, and spray painted them in the studio. Class B is for those who cannot afford to go to the workshop and so they make the sticks themselves in some garage. So there is a status related to these versions. The stick has a long history with a reference to power. **