Crisscrossing Realities

A Conversation with Libia Castro and Ólafur Ólafsson

April 2011 for Art Pulse, New York (summer issue 2011)online published:

The Spanish-Icelandic artist duo Libia Castro (born 1969 in Madrid) and Ólafur Ólafsson (born 1973 in Reykjavik) are representing Iceland at the 54th Venice Biennale 2011, which opened in June. We met the artists in the middle of the production of their new video and performance works for this occasion. The interview was conducted between Berlin, Germany, and Hafnarfjörour, Iceland, via Skype in April 2011.

Barbara J. Scheuermann - Before we start talking about your plans for the Icelandic pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale, I first would like to ask you to give me a picture of where you are and what you are occupied with at the moment.

Libia Castro and Ólafur Ólafsson - For the last couple of months we have been in Iceland, on a residency at Hafnarborg Arts Center, which is based in the outskirts of Reykjavik. With them and RÚV-a national Icelandic TV channel-we produced the piece Constitution of the Republic of Iceland for the Biennale. From May on we are in Venice, where we will do the last part of the production of the work, Your Country Doesn’t Exist, and a new iteration of the project that has been developed since 2003.

But your home base is in Berlin, or is it in Rotterdam?

We are living between Berlin and Rotterdam, commuting between the two, but we are very often in Iceland, on shorter and longer periods, because we produce a lot of our works here. Often we go to Spain or wherever work takes us because a lot of our work is produced on site. So we are traveling quite a bit.

Sounds exhausting.

Yeah, well, we hope that in a couple of years it gets a bit quieter, in terms of our base.

Yet traveling and being a nomad seems to be crucial to your artistic work.

That’s true, but maybe that changes at some point? You never know. We will see what happens. After all, changes are good.

How did it happen that you established a second base in Berlin, anyway?

Some years ago we visited our friend, Dutch artist Marc Bijl, who was on a residency at that time. He is, by the way, now living in Berlin. We went back in 2008, to the same residency by Künstlerhaus Bethanien. We liked Berlin very much and met a lot of friends from all over the world who have been part of our lives and keep crisscrossing our way ever since. Berlin is still a very interesting place, where we have a chance to meet people all the time because it’s a city where a lot of people are coming and going. So many people are particularly interesting to us because the dialogue among us is ongoing, in terms of content, methods, and so on. It’s just great.

You are preparing your presentation in the Icelandic pavilion. How are things going?

Well, you know, if you do a project like this, which involves so many people, things tend to get a bit crazy. Just like everybody, we have some issues with money. It’s because of the crisis, and the crisis is real, in the sense that the money is not always coming into the project as it was thought to be, so the project was in crisis. But we are fine with it now. Of course, the work is partly dealing with this anyway. We are used to adjusting, adapting, and rearranging.

The other thing that has been on hold for a while has to do with television: we produced Constitution of the Republic of Iceland, our new video work that is one of the main pieces of our presentation for the Venice Biennale, with the national Icelandic television station. Collaborations like this are always complex; we have been discussing many issues, such as authorship, mechanical rights, and so on. But we shouldn’t get into this right now; it’s just to give you an idea of the complexity of our projects.

How does the selection process for the Icelandic pavilion work?

We were invited by the commissioner and the board, which consists of an artist, a curator, an art critic, and the director of the National Gallery of Iceland. They get together every two years to choose an artist for the Venice Biennale. Then the artists, with the approval of the commissioner and the board, choose the curator. We chose Ellen Blumenstein for the project- she is a young and very active curator with an interesting practice in Germany and abroad, and we have mutual interests. She has worked in Spain and Latin America and knows the Icelandic scene. She is based in Berlin, so Ellen seemed to be a very good choice for our project.

What was the initial idea when you started thinking about your presentation at the Venice Biennale, the mother of all biennials? Was there any aspect that appealed to you more than another?

A very interesting fact for us was that the Icelandic pavilion doesn’t really exist. There was one in the Giardini two Biennales ago, which was part of the Finnish pavilion. The Finnish had a contract with the Icelanders that expired two Biennales ago. In Iceland people used to call it “the hut of Alvar Aalto” because it was more of a hut than a pavilion. Anyway, we thought that it was important to keep in mind that if the Icelandic pavilion was outside the Biennale grounds it would have less presence. It doesn’t mean that the pavilion, or the country, would have less importance, because nowadays everybody knows that if you come to visit the Biennale, you have to go out of the Giardini to see the pavilions throughout the city. After all, some of the pavilions in the city are much more interesting than the ones in the Giardini. But the structure of the Biennale is very conservative, which considers the pavilions in the Giardini permanent, though paradoxically were built as temporary. So, unless you buy a building, a pavilion outside the Giardini is regarded as temporary. Other than the ones within the Giardini, these pavilions are affected by their placement within the city and the ups and downs of the market.

I can imagine that this was particularly attractive for you, since in your work you address social and economic aspects of space and its context.

Yes indeed. First, we went through all the questions and doubts regarding the Venice Biennale. I remember the endless discussions of whether the Venice Biennale is an up-to-date model in the sense that it is still structured like it had been more than 100 years ago, as an exhibition that represents nations and at the same time is an international exhibition. There is always this paradox between these two parts of the Biennale, right? And then you have its impact on the city and the speculation on property, etcetera, etcetera. All that is interesting to us and made us think in a lot of directions. After all, when you participate in the Biennale, you are immediately subjected to all these questions and problems, whether you deal with it in the work or not. So we had to ask ourselves: which space should we use, and how do we find it?

And how did you eventually find it?

We actually considered squatting a place. But then the commissioner quickly told us that if we did, we would basically be out of the show. That would have meant we weren’t in the catalogue or in the guides, etcetera. We still could have done it, but it would have been very difficult to make people aware of our project as an intervention that was part of the Biennale, though definitely interesting. We decided to reflect on all aspects from another angle, which didn’t mean to take on an ‘outsider’ position. We went twice to Venice and checked out the options, and we found a space with which we are happy. We think it is a very unusual space; in a way it is a really strange island-within-Venice because it has a garden that looks rather like a wasteland, and the building itself is not a palace but looks more like a small, abandoned factory. It has two entrances, which is very interesting space-wise- one leads to the canal and the city, and for the other you enter through the palazzo, crossing the garden, because the space is the former laundry house of the Palazzo Zenobio at the Collegio Armeno. Both have very different looks to them. That really appealed to us.

The presentation will include three pieces, one of which, Exorcising Ancient Ghosts, was made in 2010, and the other two have either been produced recently or are being produced for the Biennale. Let’s talk about Your Country Doesn’t Exist, which is a new part of a work that has been continuing since 2003.

Your Country Doesn’t Exist is conceived as an ongoing campaign, though a rather strange one. But still, it’s conceived as a campaign. At times it has been presented on billboards, on the radio, TV, newspapers, or in the form of interventions. But we don’t want to sell something-we don’t represent a political party-this is the fundamental difference from other campaigns. In Venice we will do different interventions; for example, a neon work on the façade of the building. Our idea is to use the building and site concretely, contextually, and as an image. The other part of it is an outdoor public performance, which will take place before and during the opening days and will be presented as a video in the exhibition space and as an audio intervention in the Giardini and the public space in Venice.

The performance evolved from the difficulty of how to work outdoors at a public space in Venice. On our third visit we realized that appropriating a Venetian reality and cliché as a form and platform could be a good experiment for this work, so we decided to work with the gondolas and the serenada singers. The serenada is a very old musical tradition, beginning in the medieval ages and developing through the Baroque and the Renaissance, up until today. Venice started to develop as a tourist destination as early as the times of Romanticism, when the British started visiting Venice because of its attractive romantic atmosphere and setting.

The perception of Venice as a touristic image to the outside world as a reality for Venice itself has been interesting to us. On one hand, it keeps the city going, but on the other hand, it causes environmental, economic, and social problems, too. We decided to address this touristic cliché and reality that built up, among other things, the city’s image by using the image of the serenada singer. Our idea is to appropriate and to work with the image of the gondolier and serenada singer but make a contemporary musical piece as an announcement of the campaign Your Country Doesn’t Exist, collaborating with a composer with whom we had already worked on earlier pieces.

Can you talk about what will happen during the performance?

The serenada singer is usually a man, and we wanted to change that. Later on we learned that up to the eighteenth century, women used to sing serenades carried by a gondola. A known Icelandic mezzo-soprano, Ásgerdur Juniusdottir, will sing our serenada. She will be accompanied by two Italian musicians, Alberto Mesirca on guitar and David Boato on the trumpet.

Basically the performance is an announcement. In fact, the lyrics are the announcement, saying, “This is an announcement of Libia and Olafur: ‘Your country doesn’t exist, your country doesn’t exist,’” in different languages. It also includes fragments appropriated from a critical text on the project. It’s crucial that the text contains not only the announcement but also this critical, self-reflective, wondering, and at times absurd part, which considers the implications of making announcements like this one. Anyway, it’s fundamental to the idea that you can perceive the piece as a performance-if you are aware that it will take place-but you can also run into it by chance when passing by the canals, without having any preconception of what’s going on. In this sense, the piece works in various contexts in the city.

You usually work within contexts that are not necessarily linked to art audiences. The public is confronted with your interventions rather unprepared. In Venice it’s quite the opposite. How will you deal with this specific situation?

We often work with the context, and the Biennale is the given context in this case. But by using this cliché and its reality onsite, we intervene also in the city itself and its touristic reality. By using the gondola and the serenade, we are crisscrossing more than one reality. We touch a reality of the Venetians, the city’s tourists and part of its image. Actually, the touristic Venice and the Biennale belong together, but most of the regular tourists don’t give a damn about the Biennale. Of course, we don’t mean the “art tourists” who are mostly art professionals that come to the Biennale. With the gondola we want to cross the different realities of these different groups. In a way this is something we always try to do with our work: to bridge the different realities and contexts of a place, the reality of the existing social or economic context and the art context. We want these realities to come together, to be juxtaposed, or to be confronted with each other.

We will also attempt to do this by installing the audio piece of the performance piece not only on the terrace of our Icelandic pavilion but also in the central train station in Venice and in the Giardini. We still need the final, official confirmation that we really can do this, but we are positive we can.

It seems as if you are completely absorbed with the development of your presentation at the Biennale - but is there life after the Venice Biennale?

We are working on different projects, just after the Biennale opening on June 15th: we have a screening of the video work Lobbyists and a talk with activists and counter lobbyists at ICA London cinema series curated by Cylena Simonds. Then in July we have a very interesting project workshop in Barcelona, organized by duo curators Latitudes, and we are working on three solo exhibitions- CAAC Sevilla in November, Tent Art Center Rotterdam, and The National Gallery in Iceland at the beginning of the year- and we are working on new projects related to a follow-up of the Caregivers project. Caregivers, a project on immaterial labor and hyper/neuro consumerism, was realized in Italy but this time will be in Ukraine, and a follow-up on the changes in Iceland related to the crisis and the new constitution. The projects will develop into different forms, from portrayal to interventionist and/or gestures working with the “real.” Collaborating with different people-from activists, politicians, social researchers, psychologists, economists, other artists, and people in general- allows for formal and informal encounters related to the issues and the places.