Interview with Thierry Geoffroy

Thierry Geoffroy
Thierry Geoffroy and critics in the Blue Lagoon, 2012, image: The Awareness Muscle Team

After attending the Reykjavík Arts Festival and viewing (I)ndependent People curated by Stockholm-based Jonatan Habib Engqvist, the French-Danish conceptual artist Thierry Geoffroy created an event which was both a press conference and participatory, action-based art event for the artist group The Awareness Muscle Team (Geoffroy, CopyFlex [AKA Åsmund Boye Kverneland], Nadia Plesner, Victor Vadil and Maia Hauser), which took place in the famed Blue Lagoon one spring morning in Grindavík on the outskirts of Reykjavík. I was present along with other critics, journalists and visitors who simultaneously waded in the milky waters. What follows is my exchange with Geoffroy.

Jacquelyn Davis: What was your motivation for choosing The Blue Lagoon as site for your art event? Was it arbitrary?

Thierry Geoffroy: It was a decision we came to with the help of the curator. After several conversations, we grew enthusiastic about the warm pool and volcanos―new stimulants for debate. My team collaborated well with Jonatan.

JD: Your colleague Maia Hauser helped ignite the semi-submerged audience by warming up their muscles with yoga: de-stressing, stretching, face and body exercises. How do you perceive the body and mind in relation to your creative goals?

TG: It is important to produce an effort―to be critical and eliminate apathy. Sweating, moving, being in physical contact with others, opening eyes, exciting the perception sensors are important steps when training the Awareness Muscle. The Awareness Muscle is like one’s memory; it has to be trained every day. Sitting, clicking a computer mouse or remote control, caressing a tactile screen―this isn’t enough to fight apathy and laziness. The Awareness Muscle is related to sharpness, precision and pertinence. We cannot work critically if participants are drugged or apathetic. To be close with other bodies is an excellent way to fight isolation and loneliness. Our team is looking for new ways to strengthen the Awareness Muscle but in an efficient, industrialized way. Everything we do is experimental; the poison of apathy is so strong and everywhere. We have not found the right recipe yet.

JD: In this instance, you engage your audience (i.e., the press) via direct provocation, persuading them to share rough opinions immediately—unedited. What is gained by utilizing this fast-paced, improvised mode of critical engagement?

TG: Art professionals are like politicians; they don’t “get loose” easily. We use tricks to reveal what they’re really thinking about outside their repertoire—not an obvious attitude or the usual PR or network campaign. I am interested in nudist camps, where everyone shares the same nakedness; I am also interested in “jam sessions,” where everyone plays an instrument together creating a melody. I activate debate formats―to discover something new wanting to come through. Participants in these situations say incredible statements never before expressed. We could offer magic mushrooms and perhaps get a similar effect, but hallucinogenics are no optimal solution to discuss emergencies or attempt to solve them. Normally, when VIPs are escorted around biennials, they receive drinks, treats and compliments. Instead, I want them to feel uncomfortable. It is similar to broadcasting TV direct―the audience is surprised. Unpredictability and spontaneity are key elements for emergency art. Good or bad, we test with the perspective that everything should be tried so debates are more honest.

JD: Pointed Q&A is a method you employ; you also change the tempo, careening between what you have coined as Slow Dance Debate and Fight Debate. The former pairs off individuals (usually strangers) to gracefully dance while debating a concern; the latter engages them in a physical battle while participants attempt to simultaneously dissect an issue or win an argument. Describe other debate modes and the reasoning behind their necessity.

TG: Fight Debate and Critical Run produce new efforts and energy, yet at the same time, they are unpopular. People do not like to do them. Critical Run is a sweaty run and debate simultaneously; it is demanding. They can be long runs―in public spaces, in the midst of towns or even in the Egyptian desert. On the contrary, Slow Dance is nicer, less violent. Participants feel relaxed. I would like to make a book sharing their conversations and thoughts―this is what matters. There is also Debate Rave; debates occur while the audience dances to techno. But Emergency Room is the father of them all. This format is for both professional artists and the museum-going audience. Everyday artists arrive at precise time and express emergencies; this format was created for the burning, outraged artist and the general public willing to openly debate.

JD: Tell me more about how your 1989 Manifesto came to be. You claim that everything you now do still follows this manifesto—is this true? Any philosophical influences related to your manifesto and its theoretical underpinnings?

TG: It is true. I spent a lot of time constructing and writing the Manifesto to both plan for what I was going to do and understand what I was before. This Manifesto is inherently about ME: my ego attempting to exist among others. Yet, it is also about sharing, mobility, unpredictability, exhibitionism, the taking of space as both the hijacking and sharing of space. Essentially, it is the dream of a society where everyone is embarrassed together—for the same reasons. Everyone is free from hiding, faking. Free from any attitude, façade or lie. The Manifesto also discusses conviviality, friendship, the importance of status updates and photo sharing which trigger immediate emotions or outrages in “real time” so as to acquire visibility and comments from “friends.” We should not be afraid to be ridiculous. Through honest exposure, the need to hide subsides. We must share and debate in real time and change opinions via these debate results. This leads me to now claim my next project: I Created Facebook. My Manifesto has many sections: Emergency Room, Penetration, Critical Run, Biennalist, Extractor, Exhibitionist―all fulfill the Manifesto’s intent.

JD: Emergency Room is a designated space where others are allowed to express perceived “emergencies” or concerns of today in the form of lively debate and discussion as intervention into already-existing institutions. What stands as the most important and relevant emergency in Scandinavia today?

TG:In Emergency Room, artists produce artwork; they are the ramp which activates debate. From my perspective, the Scandinavian emergency is fear of the Other―the non-Scandinavian―and some afraid choose to hate. The solution is to install hate detectors with alarms which go off―especially when hate is present in the media. Another emergency is misuse of freedom of speech; there is often a unidirectional flow. To be fair, freedom of speech must go in all directions.

Scandinavians are fundamentalists regarding the defense of freedom of speech. Yet at the same time, they can be hypocritical because they have illusions about what are taboo or forbidden discussion topics. They have become experts in good conscience, self-branding themselves as “good” people. And they are mostly good, but being too good or angelic is unhealthy. To be self-critical remains crucial. Again: there exists a distance between the created image and the way one actually is when stripped naked. This distance must be reduced.

JD: What do you think of the exhibition (I)ndependent People? The press release states, “(I)ndependent People asks if and how collaboration can operate in continual negotiation between contesting ideas and desires, yet allowing unplanned and transformative action.” Do you think that it succeeds in expressing this and represents current collaborations and artist initiatives primarily from the Nordic and Baltic countries?

TG: Collaboration succeeded between us and the curator. Regarding this exhibition, what is interesting to me is: can an exhibition about collectives and collaboration lead to inter-collaboration? Will one collective choose to collaborate with another? If so, will it be a business alliance or to create a revolution? It is too early to observe, but if no collaboration happens betweens these collectives at all, then this festival about collaboration will resemble an automobile fair, where every company (i.e. collective) only promotes their brand. The Awareness Muscle Team was given a chance by the curator, yet if we fail, we are responsible. We especially like the work of Endemi and Nomeda & Gediminas Urbonas + MIT 4.333 exhibited in the festival. We hope to collaborate with them in the future.

JD: The previous question is semi-related to your concept The Biennalist where others are encouraged to critically test the thematics of biennials on location. Did you test the thematics of (I)ndependent People while on location? If so, what was determined?

TG: Yes, we tested together with art critics and other artists at the press conference. We questionedthe meaning of the words ‘collaboration,’ ‘independence,’ ‘dependence’ and ‘addiction.’ Questions developed such as: is ‘collaboration’ an extended version of the business model modified for the arts? Do two revolutionaries make ‘collaboration’ or only ‘struggle’ together? Is ‘collaboration’ a capitalist ideology? The curator also shared his opinions. Normally, Biennalists ask questions at the press conference. But this time, we both directed the press conference and asked questions concerning the festival’s agenda. So, we completed the task of The Biennalist.

JD: How did ‘format art’ come into being? You are known to be its inventor.

TG: The art that we make is meant and ”designed ” to become art formats. In 1999, after being involved with printed media, I wanted to investigate TV exposure. I did three TV series of eight episodes each and discovered that format was important. I attended international conferences with TV journalists and media representatives. Meanwhile, I was also following through with artist activities and concerns. It seemed logical to appropriate TV knowledge and methods for the art world. Yet, even though I adopted some of the mechanics from these TV formats, I was simultaneously protesting them―especially what is technically referred to as ‘elimination shows.’ Art formats respond to globalization, and the format is by definition shaped to become global.

JD: Format art is conceptually beautiful, somewhat reminiscent of mathematics. Factors and variable change, and one is not entirely confident what the outcome will be until an answer appears—similar to the final result of an equation. You are called ‘Colonel,’ but perhaps you are also a mathematician. Explain your pseudonym.

TG: At one point, I studied both mathematics and medicine. I was probably influenced by certain methods outlined in both subjects. The name ‘Colonel’ is a metaphor for one who uses strategy and tactics to get results. But I am no fan of the military. Yet, the Manifesto places importance on such contradictions.

JD: (I)ndependent People places emphasis on overriding subjectivity, allowing room for both an alternative, hybridized space and identity leading to social and cultural transformations which avoid homogeneous tendencies. Does The Awareness Muscle Team abide by this premise?

TG: One goal of The Awareness Muscle Team is to industrialize critical production and debate, where the critic is seen as positive contributor. We want to revive the apathetic soul, yet we are still far from succeeding.

JD: How does your perception of the future play into the immediacy of your projects? Or rather: is your art focused on present day realities?

TG: The future is always important. We must run now before it is too late and be in advance of the broken arm. We must avoid the accident before it is too late. In part, this is the role of the artist based upon intuition and prediction. To be the alarm. We are not so much fixing but trying to avoid the crash.

JD: What do you want to see change or happen regarding the Nordic art scene? What can the everyday citizen do to make this happen?

TG: The art scene must become more open to strangers, artists from other countries and fields. The art scene is very good yet delayed. I propose an education model of emergency art and collective awareness muscle training. I also propose to connect with TV stations and to inject the media with what artists think about today in real time. Unpredictability is censored in the North: all must be controlled and organized—including art. I propose to work against this tendency by creating situations of ultra-fast, artistic dogwatch—to be ready for anything. Give art access to the public opinion in real time. Ultra-fast, critical discipline should be taught in academia and also visible in public exhibitions. The state—through the institution—should stimulate the art world to be critical of the state. Criticism should become a necessary discipline of Nordic countries who brand themselves as advocates for freedom of speech. To see an abridged version of the interview in context, click here.

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