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Terra Incognita
Charting the Undocumented Zones of Artistic Practice – An Interview with Paul Barsch

Patrick Tayler

One has to delve into alternatively designed web-based platforms and explore multifaceted physical spaces and objects to experience the complex and subversive artistic practice of Dresden and Berlin-based artist Paul Barsch (born in 1982, Karlsburg). In a recent web-deconstructing, conceptual labyrinth titled New Scenario, Paul Barsch and Tilman Hornig reinvestigated the possible sites of artistic performance, ranging from the neo-baroque curves of a limousine’s interior to the light-flooded orifices of the human body or the sombre, hellish vistas of Chernobyl. As a result, the forever-moving artwork – a sketch or an unidentified flying object – becomes an enigmatic point of contemplation, losing its tight bonds with the art world’s neutral lighting panels and dominant white walls. In order to rethink some of the scene’s more crusty, persisting notions, I talked with Paul Barsch about the shifting notion and function of art from a more global perspective, touching upon the various metanarratives and subtextual layers that emerge from his collaborative pieces and individual work.

Paul Barsch: A Faint Smell of Sulphur ╱ 2021 ╱ Photo: Mikkel Kaldal ╱ Image courtesy of the artist

Paul Barsch: Hybernators ╱ 2016 ╱ stalagmites, clay, cave dust ╱ Photo: Paul Barsch ╱ Image courtesy of the artist

Patrick Tayler: How did the role of the „white cube space” or „minimalist web design” transform in the last few years? How does your project New Scenario1 reflect on these contextual issues?
Paul Barsch: The role of the white cube has expanded from being a physical space dedicated solely to the presentation and reception of art to becoming a production site for – and backdrop to – exhibition documentation that is subsequently circulated and received in a digital context. The reception of digital exhibition documentation has recently gained importance. Likewise, web design has evolved in the last few years, changed its form, and certain minimalist trends seem to have prevailed. The curatorial project New Scenario – which I run collaboratively with the artist Tilman Hornig – reflects on these issues. For us, it is a vehicle to navigate outside of the boundaries of standardised art presentation and perception. It questions the concept of the white cube, canonised modes of art presentation (especially in the context of digitality) and opens up pathways for new approaches. For us, the white cube is just one – and indeed, a very effective and functional – way to present art in the most neutral way possible. It is the perfect environment to shift focus on the artwork (the artwork as product). However, it is too well-defined, too standardised, with no real artistic potential left for exploration. We think there is much more potential outside this realm for experiencing, understanding and experimenting with art. It is more exciting and intellectually appealing to see (the same) artworks travel between different contexts and settings rather than reappearing in very similar environments that most global art spaces, art fairs and museums provide. With New Scenario, we placed artworks into extreme settings to explore the interdependent relationships between already complex objects and complex surroundings.

PT: What role do the circumstances of presentation play in your other work?
PB: Context is an important factor in many of my personal works and other projects as well: I use context as a starting point to which I align the works or select the utilised materials. Many of my pieces are created site-specifically, with regard to the space where they are shown or in interaction with it. Many things are conceived or staged in relation to their spatial effect or planned documentation. While some works are created detached from any spatial context, in which case the materials are more critical, or I rely on more general contextual references.

New Scenario’s HOPE ╱ 2017 ╱ newscenario.net, online exhibition ╱ Photo: Paul Barsch & Tilman Hornig ╱ Image courtesy of the artists and New Scenario

PT: You seem to be invested in the notion of the „uncanny”, the „eerie”, but also the subversion of corporate design tactics. What other aesthetic categories interest you? Where does this interest in transgression stem from?
PB: The emphasis on transgression comes from an interest in material and a general rejection of intellectual boundaries. One can extend the contours of an artwork infinitely if one wants to, as well as the material from which one assembles it. Everything can become material, depending on where one chooses to draw meaningful boundaries to frame the artwork. Corporate design tactics have always struck me as eerie as they are, in some way, quite abysmal. In general, I relate to (and work with) a wide range of aesthetic expressions. In some cases, these aesthetic languages mark a particular „contextual space ” or refer to a given „temporal field ” that I like to work with. But I always try to keep a certain distance: I try to overcome my personal taste, to force myself out of my comfort zone. For this reason, I like to work collaboratively: it forces me to deal with different intellectual and practical approaches. Art should never be guided by one’s personal taste. In fact, I am interested in excavating the areas where there seems to be no art according to general opinion.

PT: Do you think of „the contemporary” as an „aesthetic” or a „structure”?
PB: In general, people think that art has a certain „aesthetic”, and as soon as something corresponds to this, it is automatically perceived as art. This is connected to conditioning, art history and discourse, but as soon as art enters into new areas and these familiar aesthetics are left behind, it becomes difficult for most people to keep up. In an institutional framework – to come back to the white cube – you can still establish a certain mediation, but as soon as these frameworks disappear, for example, when art unfolds online or off-site, it becomes very difficult to recognise it. It is way easier to navigate within accepted and established aesthetics, forms and spaces than to follow the new paths projected by art. Art is always directed towards the future. Art that is oriented only towards the past is not art: it might look like it, but it is, at most, a nostalgic imitation. (Which, in turn, could also be an aspect that can be exploited artistically). Art must act at eye level with the present and cannot ignore it to do justice to its time. This does not mean that it should subordinate itself to contemporary aesthetics but should at least be informed by them to find a constellation that poses a new question or elicits old questions anew concerning the human condition.

Emmy Skensved & Gregoire Blunt Latulippe’s sculpture in New Scenario’s BODY HOLES ╱ 2016 ╱ newscenario.net, online exhibition ╱ Photo: BLUNTxSKENSVED ╱ Image courtesy of the artists and New Scenario

Burkhard Beschow & Anne Fellner’s sculpture in New Scenario’s BODY HOLES ╱ 2016 ╱ newscenario.net, online exhibition ╱ Photo: Paul Barsch & Tilman Hornig ╱ Image courtesy of the artists and New Scenario

Paul Barsch’s sculpture in New Scenario’s BODY HOLES ╱ 2016 ╱ newscenario.net, online exhibition ╱ Photo: Paul Barsch & Tilman Hornig ╱ Image courtesy of the artists and New Scenario

PT: You remixed Brad Troemel’s 2013 talk (Sender/Receiver) on „athletic aesthetics” at the Serpentine Galleries into a haunted trap anthem. Is art theory something you think of as a material that can be manipulated, moulded and transformed?2
PB: This old work, lol. Interesting that you just picked this one! At the time, I made some of these attempts to work with the artistic expressions of other artists as material. Playfully, not in the sense of a collage, but rather in the sense of including small additional interventions or extensions to strengthen some incidental aspects or to let something new emerge. My question was to what extent can one use the artistic expressions of others as material. You cannot shape art theory in the same way you carve wood: you need to invent new tools first. The material alone does not constitute an artwork. It is its use and in the exact assembly of that material. Actually, it is the painful thought process behind it is that is the most crucial aspect.

PT: You continue to investigate the outer limits of well-established art categories: installation, site-specific work, collaboration, etc… Why do you seek the edges of the playing field?
PB: Well, I think this should be essential for every artist! Against the background of good usability, marketability and mediation (which should never be a guideline for art!), it may be appropriate to limit oneself to the boundaries of a canvas, a particular medium, or way of acting, etc. Still, to create something new, one must explore and transcend borders! One finds creative potential and the most fantastic design possibilities outside of these boundaries because nothing is yet fixed… Boundaries (especially in art) are always artificial, and one must think beyond them. What is decisive is the way of thinking. If you want, you can let the artistic process end at the „national borders” of the physical edge of the canvas, or you might as well extend it into digital realms – for example bringing into play the different states of aggregation of that canvas, as well as the different layers of perception in the process. Well-established ways and categories always hold a yawning boredom and dullness.

Elin Gonzalez’ drawing in New Scenario’s CHERNOBYL PAPERS ╱ 2021 ╱ newscenario.net, online exhibition ╱ Photo: Paul Barsch & Tilman Hornig ╱ Image courtesy of the artists and New Scenario

Elin Gonzalez’ drawing in New Scenario’s CHERNOBYL PAPERS ╱ 2021 ╱ newscenario.net, online exhibition ╱ Photo: Paul Barsch & Tilman Hornig ╱ Image courtesy of the artists and New Scenario

PT: In some of your work, you deliberately restrict the viewer’s options. In others, it is more about opening up a space for random viewerly routines. Does the „lo-fi” or „super-high definition” of your work – the notion of extended documentation – play an active part in this?
PB: Yes, that is a very interesting observation. I like to work with the interplay of „lo-fi” and „super-high definition”. This happens on many levels: you find it in the art objects themselves and on the level of presentation. A sloppily executed object documented with high-end means creates an utterly different explosiveness as if the documentation itself was also sloppy. So these levels within – and surrounding – a work and the imagined audience are critical. Still, there is no need to formulate every idea in detail. Even in painting, the interplay of fine details and rough areas creates fruitful tensions. It always depends on the framing and from what point of view you are looking at the thing: a specific detail of the object, the entire object, the object in its environment, the object in close relation to other objects, the object in a document, etc. The detail is not engaging in itself, only if you step back and see it in relation to the whole picture. If you consciously shape these levels, you can compose utilising these various parameters. I have often come across the situation when people often say that an art object had looked much better in the photo and that they were disappointed to see it in reality. But that might have been intentional! Maybe it is actually this „photo look” or documented stage that really matters because it might hold the real potential to circulate and distribute the artistic idea. In this case, the physical object is just a prosthesis. Both – the object and the documentation – belong together, so to speak. One shouldn’t deny the effect of the documentation: perhaps the disappointment in the real is also an essential and intentional aspect.

PT: Do you consciously construct narratives with your pieces?
PB: Some narratives emerge by chance, but I don’t usually design with a narrative outcome in mind. Instead, it’s the assembling of different parts with different, maybe even contradictory narratives or quasi-narratives, which create open questions and ambivalent readings. The selection and assembly happens very intuitively. But intuition is not accidental but trained by a broad set of interests and experiences. When a straightforward narrative emerges, it is a good sign that you are on the wrong path. Doubt should be a constant companion. In the foreground, however, the work is always constructed on a figurative level first, with images that cast or overlay narrative shadows, which in the best cases create deeper meaning. I understand art as a pointing-towards. A pointing-towards fragments of thought processes that elicit many open questions.

Anne Fellner’s painting in New Scenario’s CRASH ╱ 2015 ╱ newscenario.net, online exhibition ╱ Photo: Stefan Haehnel ╱ Image courtesy of the artists and New Scenario

PT: The criticism of capitalism, the speculations concerning crypto art, the definitions of post-factual art, the endless discourse on what constitutes contemporary art and existence, etc., seem to provide the backdrop for any given artist working today. Do these tendencies and themes interest you? Do you think there is a way to drive forward these discourses through art?
PB: Sure, I am very interested in what is going on. Even though I cannot grasp everything, I try to follow. Art needs to be grounded in the present, and artists should keep an open eye and take part in the discourses to be able to relate to them. On the other hand, art is not a cure for everything. Art (and the artist) has a special function, but it cannot solve the urgent existential issues we are facing right now. In the face of the general uselessness of art, in the attempt to decipher the apparent meaning of an art object evoked by the power of its visual agency lies the potential to break up encrusted thought processes.

PT: Do you think art can appropriate the strategies of the entertainment industry? Is there a chance to redirect users/viewers to alternative realms of existence?
PB: Sure, art can appropriate strategies of the entertainment industry as well. It did and does, and – vice versa – it is being done. But in the general context of Attention Economies and the capitalised stream of images, art and the art image plays a decreasingly important role, and artistic strategies are being deployed everywhere from fashion to advertising and games. But, yes, this is a fundamental question, and hopefully, we can redirect to, or create, situations where new cathartic portals of experience can emerge.

Installation view of Paul Barsch & Tilman Hornig’s Immer Müde und Scheiss Wetter in New York ╱ 2018 ╱ series of custom-made umbrellas ╱ Photo: Paul Barsch ╱ mage courtesy of the artists

PT: You collaborate with many artists and specialists from other fields. Do you think of yourself as a curator as well in these situations? How does the transfer of know-how influence your perspective as an artist?
PB: Yes, a lot of collaborative projects are at the same time curatorial projects as well, such as New Scenario, for example. They are created in close or loose collaboration with others. However, I actually don’t see myself as a traditional curator, as I approach all projects as an artist. Even though all these projects demand me to shape-shift to some extent, becoming an art handler, cameraman, bookkeeper, manager, image- and video editor, etc. I have to meet these jobs’ expectations to finish the given project and work with specialists. But the entire process and all the decisions concerning the outcome are devised from an artist’s perspective. I view these steps as a kind of substance that needs to be shaped into the envisioned form. And likewise, the material influences the decisions. During collaborative processes, it is pretty similar: there is a lot of giving and learning, which for sure impacts the artistic process and my perspectives while pushing me into foreign areas.

PT: What are you working on at the moment?
PB: Right now, I’m working on an exhibition for a freshly-opened space in Berlin. I’m creating new works – collaborative paintings with an artist and friend, Bernd Imminger specifically for this space. Our idea is to extend the exhibition into some kind of video work. The process is still wide-open, and I dunno if the paintings will turn out any good. It’s a challenge. Let’s see!