A conversation between Anne Fäser and Andreas Sell
on March 13th 2009 at Studio Andreas Sell, Berlin

Standstill – Flick Collection Berlin 1, 2009, Flick Collection in the Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin, Performance, ca. 2 hours

The Performance was not in prior consultation with the management of the exhibition.

AF:
In your artistic works, people who perform actions become part of the piece. Their action is
the artwork. You either execute your concepts yourself – for example, you stand motionless
for hours – or you give instructions for actions to others. Your works take place in both
exhibition spaces and public venues. But the intervention you make is principally very
minimal, often barely visible, and can scarcely be differentiated from actions that occur
everyday or exist in another context.
I find that emptiness – or blank spaces – are a striking feature of your work. Your works are
situated at the limits of the perceptible. The artistic project remains concealed to many.
Dealing with your works, I found myself thinking of some artists who react to the
representation of reality with skepticism and strategies of refusal and therefore empty the
image – they deal with what is not visible. Can you identify with this kind of idea of
“emptiness” as an attempt to show what cannot be depicted?
AS:
In the beginning, I worked with pictures without thinking much about it, and after a while
came to the point where I noticed that the image had nothing to do with the action. I stopped
documenting my work. In the end, there was nothing left. The action happened and, due to
its being ephemeral and difficult to grasp, was scarcely perceived by others. I, too, didn’t
know how to assess it. I have only vague memories left of many of the actions I staged. So
there was hardly anything left to reflect on. That made it very difficult for me to continue
working. I decided to start using media like photography, video, sound or text again, in order
to leave behind some traces that I could think about. My first step away from a total absence
of imagery involved instructions for actions on audio CDs – instructions for eating a piece of
toast, for example. I tried to make them as exact as possible. Every step, from lifting the
hand to the last swallow, was structured. Most of the people who listened weren’t interested
in eating a piece of toast in that way. The set of instructions was experienced as a sound
piece, an artwork in and of itself, and gained a new, different significance. But my primary
interest is in the uniqueness of the action, because pictures or even words don’t come even
close to conveying what actions can convey.
A planned action takes place at a certain place and for a certain length of time. It deals with
an idea that in turn touches on an experience with the space, the place where it happens. It’s
possible at an abstract level to create an image of what occurs during the process of an
action, perhaps in order to convey an idea of it and initiate communication about it. However,
the experience or the actual event quality of the action stays hidden in an invisible gap.
AF:
Maybe your works could also be described as event-images whose discourse centers more
on the idea of an action. I’d like to think more about “emptiness” in that connection.
Ultimately, you work with social actions as your canvas – eating a piece of toast, playing ball
or standing in an exhibition. By altering these forms of action, making them works of art, you
facilitate a moment of abstraction and reflection. Through the precise observation of an
action, one can become aware at another level of what one does and with what
consequences. Would it be going too far to say that, by means of a tiny action or by
abstracting for a brief moment, one can consciously become aware that these actions exist?
AS:
You can have physical, existential experiences. As far as I can see, these experiences do
not depend on reason. Eating a piece of toast is probably the kind of action that seldom
leads to an existential experience. When this action is stretched out for 18:08 minutes and
each movement is choreographed, it becomes a feat. Initially it’s difficult to follow the
instructions because the action is usually automatic. After a few bites, you adapt to the
rhythm, accept it, and no longer have to put any effort into following the instructions. You
gain the freedom to experience, say, something about the way you salivate. Possibly the
idea of the blank space can in that sense also be considered an invitation to pay attention to
things that exist, but are usually not at the forefront of awareness.
I imitate situations or make small interventions at certain places in order to get another idea
of the way we usually perceive the usual structures. There are many different kinds of
normality, I take part in them and change them a little.
AF:
By standing still in an exhibition space, for instance, you disrupt the usual way of looking at
pictures. In a space set aside for art, the process of looking is connected with a certain kind
of ritualization that has a particular structure, a particular rhythm, a particular speed. With you
and your action of standing still, something in the role of the viewer gets confused. You turn
into an “in-between person”: a viewer-artwork.
AS:
Undefined. The work is so minimal that it can be everything or nothing.

30 days to rehearse, no previous musical knowledge, 11 melodies

The Huqin-Player was sent from Beijing to Berlin to present what she had studied.

AF:
Yes, you’re a protagonist who can be both: subject or object. You become an object in that
you refuse the usual subjective role of looking at pictures in the exhibition, for instance.
As I see it, you also disrupt viewers’ expectations of the exhibition space and their own
behavior when looking at art, and confront them with themselves. Another way of enteringinto-
relationship arises between artwork and observer. The artistic work in question here is
again a subject, but one that appears immobile and as such like an object – it seems to
define another reality in space and time.
AS:
It’s not clear what role I play as an artwork in an exhibition setting. An observer doesn’t know
whether or not this artwork will move. I suspect that standing still in an exhibition brings me
so close emotionally to the viewer that my motionlessness suggests a kind of absence. The
observer can get unusually close to a strange person, yet s/he knows that I’m a human being
and will start to move again. The possibility that this movement could happen at any moment
generates tension between the observer and the observed.
AF:
Yes, and this tension is augmented by irritations, impressions and associations, but their
traces can’t be depicted – their modes of expression usually remain gaps.
In your artistic work, you treat various roles in an artistic context. As an exhibition attendant,
you were paid by the institution to accomplish that task. Without its knowledge, it
remunerated you for something completely different, since you described yourself in your
function of attendant as an artwork.
AS:
Yes, from my point of view, the institution paid me as an artwork without knowing that it
possessed an additional artwork.
AF:
By doing this, you take an analytic look not only at the coordinates of an artwork – the terms
and conditions of art, the context of artistic activity – but also at the value or the valuation of
art and achievement. By positioning the gallery attendant as a work of art, you redefined a
crucial position within the institution through which it legitimates mechanisms of inclusion and
exclusion. But you stayed within the existing structure and used your own position of power
as an artist to alter something within the art context. To what extent do you see yourself as a
participant in the power negotiations within the art field?
AS:
I would like to use what I find there as an impetus for my work. I stay in the structure and
think about how to evaluate the different positions. Maybe one can give the artwork a new
position that way.
AF:
So it’s about negotiating and altering the work of art. There are various protagonists in the
exhibition space and there is the non-visible – the level of interpretations and emotions, for
example. Art is not just the object, it’s the whole framework. Is that what you mean?
An old  man wrote down his curriculum vitae, which was audio taped and played during the exhibition at the Kunstverein Schwerin. As often the old man was able to he sat next to the speakers in the show room and listened to the audio recording.
AS:
Absolutely.
I find it necessary to contemplate the whole framework to find new inspiration and be able to
participate in what’s going on.
AF:
Who adapts to whom in the process – the art to the institution or vice versa? The Exhibition
Attendant piece is a resistant work. It is a subtle stance of refusal. The work takes liberties
and alters positions within an institutionally established structure.
In other works, you are the one who determines the roles or the framework within which the
roles occur. You pay people to carry out a specific action at a predetermined place, one they
normally wouldn’t be paid for. For the work Eine Reise durch die Kunstgeschichte [A Journey
through the History of Art] you hired extras to look at artworks in five national museums in
Berlin. You designated the very act of viewing art as an artwork. Another time, you paid a
mother and her daughter to allow themselves to be exhibited in a gallery, with their curricula
vitae, as living sculpture. What significance does the payment have in this context? What
would you like to convey to the participants via this artistic approach?
AS:
The person who carries out my artwork is moved by a motivating impulse (e.g. money, love
or friendship) to become part of the artwork for a certain period of time as the exhibited
subject. By stating the reason why a person allows him/herself to be exhibited as part of the
piece, I lend the work its social context. In so doing, I would like to open up the spectrum in
which art happens. The gallery visitor is directly confronted with a social relationship that s/he
is a part of, namely what work for pay means to the mother and daughter I exhibited. You get
information not only about my relationship to the exhibited person, but also about the
significance of the art venue and the position of the artist in society.