"What the F is This?": A Conversation with Stefan Saffer by Allison Hewitt Ward

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AP Faculty member Stefan Saffer’s work, which includes paper cut outs, sculptures, mobile installations with sonic elements and collaborative projects in public space, is defiantly difficult to package. If there’s any generalization to be made about the Berlin and New York City based artist’s work, it’s that what is present shares the same conceptual space as what is absent; the seemingly empty spaces become fertile ground for play.

Here, he discusses his recent Sound Mobile installation at the “ArtPark” show in Manhattan, his thoughts about abstraction and conceptualism and his desire to lure viewers out of their comfort zone with AP Staff member Allison Hewitt Ward.

AHW: Your cut out pieces don’t fall within the comfortable categories of painting and sculpture, etc., that are so often used to codify works of art. Can you tell me more about your use of this technique as part of a concept-driven practice?

SS: It started like a discovery. I was researching structure and visual networks and reading books about institutions that research the differences between pre-planned street structures to those that developed organically over time. I was interested in physical, visual structures and networks, so I drew them. I also was a fan of Brice Marden’s Cold Mountain series. At some point I realized that I was making a logical mistake. I was drawing and painting networks, but they were still just on paper. So I thought, let’s cut that away. When I did that a new world of new things opened up in front of me. At first, I made the mistake of putting the cut out directly onto the wall. I corrected that by hanging it slightly off the wall and all of a sudden it transformed. There was a shadow, there was an object. It was not just a drawing, it became something like a painting, something in between categories. Most of all, it started living.

I love that cut outs have their roots in folk art, more so than in fine art. I love this neighborhood, this kind of frame. Showing my pieces all over the world I noticed that people had access to them who weren’t ever looking at art before. They felt comfortable with the fact that there’s something cut out—crafted, in a way. They could directly relate. There wasn’t a term Cut Out when I started using this technique. That’s only recently become a category in contemporary art.

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AHW: What year did you start these pieces?

SS: 1991 or 1990. I had been totally frustrated the year before I began. I was an organizer and manager of students at my own small art academy in Nuremberg. I found the academy quite boring and not particularly creative, so I tried to change it. I invited people to come and talk about their practice. Hans Ulrich Obrist, for example, came very early in his career.

I later went to Goldsmiths in London which was much more interesting, but I was frustrated with the white cube and the homogeneous art crowd so I began to improvise works in my studio and work in public space. Though it confused many of my teachers and fellow students, working in public space allowed me to learn more about audiences and provided an amazing new field of discoveries for my practice.

AHW: Your work seems to delineate space as much as it occupies it, both in your cut out pieces and public installations like Mobile Porch. How did you use that object, or perhaps platform, to create a public space?

SS: I’m not sure you can create a public space, maybe public attention. There is a difference of contexts when you talk about public space.  My first investigation of public space in 1999 was born out of my frustration with the White Cube. It was a project called Sandwich, an outdoor corner gallery on London’s Brick Lane, right on the street. I invited 25 artists to do short-term interventions at that corner. It was all rather illegal. Nobody knew it was art, that was very important for me. I didn’t say it was art. I wanted to see how people reacted to the work directly and whether the artworks would succeed in that context. I understood that every artwork has its own public and its own mechanisms to draw attention. A cut out is public to a small number of people if it’s in a private collection, but more people will see it if it appears in the streets. In public space there is a more democratic and less predictable crowd. We had no clue about who would come – and that was great.

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AHW: What texts or thinkers influenced your thoughts on public space at that time?

SS: London was so exciting that I really didn’t read much. I should confess that. There was more partying than reading, but I experimented a lot in public space. I tested out ideas.

Thomas Demand did his first little objects in public space in New Cross outside Goldsmiths. Many people don’t know that anymore, but that’s how he started. He did some little macquettes and put them back on the sidewalk where trash was piling up and took photos of them. So that was testing too, I guess.

The consciousness about what public space meant came later. You mentioned Mobile Porch, which wasn’t just my own baby. I was there in collaboration with an artist, K. Boehm, and an architect, Andreas Lang, who came from the AA in London. We started on the street. We came across very different audiences and very different functions of art. We formed a group called Public Works, which ultimately became an umbrella that would continue to exist after individuals left. I left Public Works in 2005 or 2006 after seven years of collaborating to return my focus to my own work. Public works is now a company in London.

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I never made a qualitative distinction between my cut outs and those public projects projects, or any other form of art, for that matter. Though different types of work follow different rules, they are equally interesting. It’s really stupid to say painting is better then public art or performance is better then digital art and so on. It’s the 21st century. We have to look into what the art says or does rather then which category it belongs to.

AHW: That reminds me of the 18th Century British Academy with its hierarchy of historical painting, portrait painting and landscape painting.

SS: And that’s still at work today. People need to create categories like cut outs.

AHW: Do you think it has to do with salability?

SS: Commodification and salability, of course. What do you do when you want to sell something? You have to wrap it up in a one-liner. But we all know that selling art is ridiculous, because you sell something that can’t really be captured, if it’s good, that is. You sell an idea, or not even that. There’s a popular fascination about how much money art makes. But in the end what’s left is not what was bought or sold, it’s the content of the artwork.

I have a good example. The first stock market started in Holland for the tulip trade. It ultimately crashed and lots of people were financially ruined. But tulips still grow. They’re still around. The tulips survived, not the market for tulips.

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AHW: You’ve said that you want to create work that people with no understanding of art or background in art can access and engage with.

SS: I love that, if it happens. I’m not sure if I’m always good at doing that consciously. If people engage that way it means that the work is open. It has a gate you can walk through, even if it may look banal first. Of course, I love when people go further and get more depth. If that happens, I’m a good artist. It’s very difficult to be a good artist. I’ve come to realize that over the course of ten years you’ll be lucky if you make five really good pieces.

AHW: Do you have a working definition of what a good artist is?

SS: I have a sort of educated guess rather than a definition. I think good artists are honest with themselves and with what they do. They understand that they make art not just for themselves but for society. Maybe that’s the most important: to be truthful to oneself and to society. That stands the test of time.

AHW: A lot of your work appears very formal and abstract, but you’re also dealing with social and political issues. How do you see the relationship between your beautifully crafted forms and the concepts that you address?

SS: This is a two-category problem. I come from a formal background. In my first years in the academy I learned about shapes and color and the relationships between those things from very formal professors. I studied what a composition is and what it isn’t, when a line should be a little bit left or a little bit right. I love this. I love the idea of abstract pieces and good compositions because abstraction is a free spirit that allows people to very freely associate things with it. On the other side there’s content—I work with language a lot—which is close to poetry. I address issues more directly, more so than in the abstract piece.

I can’t tell you whether I’d like to stand in front of a Rothko for an hour or if I want to read a Lawrence Weiner. I think both of them are great. For me, coming back every now and again to abstract compositions after working with social and sometimes political issues feels like coming home. I try to test myself by making a drawing to let something out.

AHW: So you see an ontological distinction between the abstract compositions and the more concept-driven work?

SS: Yes, there’s a distinction. If you make an abstract piece and you write very small word like fuck in the middle of it, you’ve changed the entire work. But if you have an abstract piece, an abstract composition, you have a different thing. It resonates on different levels. A Mondrian resonates with you for certain reasons, not just the right angles. It’s how he condensed a deep life experience into a very reduced composition. You can see the difference.

AHW: In your own work I see both of those elements. Do you see some works as addressing more the formal and the abstract and others as addressing…

SS: Yes. Some are just purely abstract and some are more epic. Those epic pieces tell a story or try to start a story. A lot of works are the start of a story, or the end, or something in between. They leave things open the same way that poetry does. Poetry is like painting with words. I love just painting something to take paints seriously in their own rights without any other connotations. This makes it so different. It’s difficult to package me. I can’t even package myself. I love being interested in different things at different times. I come back to different cycles of my work whenever I feel I have to do that. I do whatever I want, pretty much.

AHW: When you put it that way it almost seems so silly that we expect artists, or people in any profession, to have just one thing that they do all the time.

SS: I find that amazingly boring. A lot of my colleagues make careers doing that, though. They make a lot of money, which is great. There is a quality in trying to make one thing better over years and years and years. It’s a very German thing. They make one Mercedes and make it a little bit better every year. It’s always a Mercedes, though. There’s something to be admired in that, but I’m not patient enough for it. My work is more scattered. I did cut outs, I stopped and took a huge break, and then I started doing cut outs again. I’ll probably start and stop again. I think the right balance between starting with an idea and the time it takes to work that idea out is key.

AHW: Was there a different concept each time you worked with cut outs?

SS: Yes, very much. The concept changes. They’re only unified by the technique. I would have skipped it if it wasn’t working for me, but it does work. It’s like an oil painter who paints on canvas. The medium works, he just changes the painting. It’s the same for me. I change the contents of the cutouts. My latest piece was in Denmark and the cut outs there were very harsh. There were words—very ugly, aggressive poetry—coming through in these beautiful cut outs.

AHW: I’d like to bring up the “ArtPark” show that you recently participated in. You showed a Sound Mobile installation, an interactive work that you’ve described as a drawing and a drum.

SS: It’s sort of a painting composition which doubles as a musical instrument, but it’s not really an instrument and it’s not really a painting. It moves. Mobile is an interesting symbol. It’s a very complex structure because it has to be balanced. All the pieces hang on one string and are connected with all the others. The structure is similar in my cut outs: everything you see is connected to everything else, otherwise it would fall out. In a mobile it’s like that, but three dimensional. I paint on the surfaces of the mobile in order to create a composition that holds together even though it moves. It’s visible and present but it can also be seen through.

The mobile I showed in “ArtPark” is the third or fourth mobile that doubles as a drum. In many of my works I introduce the Brechtian idea of alienation affect. Brecht proposed that the introduction of alienation affects in theater destroys the illusion for a moment and kicks the viewer back into reality; it forces you to take another look at what’s real. That’s exactly what I try there, in a very soft way: introducing a sound alongside the movement of the mobile forces you to use a different part of your brain. You have a moment of reconfiguring your thoughts towards that piece, and it’s your decision whether you want to do that or not. I leave that open. I love this idea. I’m really a fan of music, and it’s kind of like a random music piece then. You can play, but it needs you to concentrate on it to throw the ball, and so on. There’s movement in the space, too, since you have to pick up the ball again. It’s very complex. Change can happen in one moment and then there is reconfiguration in order to be changed again.

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AHW: Could you tell me more about how sound has influenced and shaped your work?

SS: Music is really important for me to listen to because it’s so structural. Bach, for example, is important. I like, and I’m jealous, like many visual artists, of the direct impact music has on people, how it travels, how it contains emotions, this is amazing. Sound exists in a different dimension than the visual world.

I was so happy to find a way to introduce drums. At first, I used rice paper, but it broke because people hit it too hard. Now I have real drum sets that I’ve painted on. I’ll work on mobiles until I die. It’s a slow process, slower than a drawing.

AHW: Looking over your diverse body of work I notice that there’s always a relationship in play: the cutout piece to its shadow on the wall, the mobile to the space, sound and participant.

SS: That’s important. I wasn’t conscious of it in the beginning because as a student I thought you made art for the white cube. Then I realized that what’s really at stake is the way people resonate with the work. It’s a form of communication. The pieces leave me and then they have to be able to speak up for themselves, they have to survive outside my studio. They have to have a life without me. I think it’s important that those artworks are still making sense to people when I’m not around to explain them.

AHW: You can’t stand in every gallery with every work that you show.

SS: I love communication. I sometimes feel like I think myself into the art piece as if the art piece is an actor or a person looking at the viewer. I try to imagine myself as a painting hanging on the wall and looking at you, the viewer. What do I say? I use a carpet as a backdrop to create a little stage, a theatrical setup to make the mobile an actor, a silent actor in many ways, but still and actor. The real artwork is not my work, it’s not what is displayed. It’s what happens between the viewer and the artwork.

AHW: What do you hope that your students take away from their MFA?

I try to understand every student on their own terms and help them discover what’s best for them. Sometimes they don’t understand that. They ask me for my opinion and I say it’s not that important. What’s important for me is whether something makes sense for the individual student or artist. That allows them to develop their own opinion about their work and where it’s going.

I hope they leave this program understanding certain strategies of survival, of how to make art in any circumstance. If a tsunami happens they should continue to make art. That’s what I try to tell them. They have to respect all their life circumstances. They have to figure them in instead of leaving them out. I always ask what’s going on in their lives. Can you factor that into your practice? As artists, we have to embrace that. Otherwise you work against yourself. If you have no money, you might not be able to do a huge installation, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t work. You can still work: get a pencil, make a drawing. Make something. Don’t stop. Don’t let yourself be stopped by those problems.

The market comes up a lot, the galleries and stuff. I’m having a big struggle with that. It’s better to ignore that and do your own thing. What’s most important is knowing how to respect yourself and how to value yourself. If you do something just to sell it you will lose. Maybe you’ll make some money in the short term, but you’ll lose in the long term because you make yourself dependent on people who are not even interested in art, really.

AHW: I think there’s a question of what people are making art for and in what context.

SS: That’s the underlying main question. Go back and ask yourself what you’re making work for and then be true to that. Everybody asks themselves this question, even if they’re successful until the end of their life. What do I do that for, really? Why do I do this? Where do I go?

And some people come to very important artworks. Marina Abramovic did a great work staring people in the eye. How minimal, how reduced, but how strong.

AHW: Is she the one who said that the hardest thing to do is the smallest thing?

SS: I’m not sure if she said that but it’s true. We all know that it takes a great deal to get into MoMA, to be able to operate in that context. You can stare people in the eye on any given street corner, but it would have a different impact. The context is an important part of the piece.

AHW: It seems to me that the idea of publicness changes a great deal between the MoMA context and the street corner. I think that some institutional critique of museums winds up a little impotent, because it’s just dealing with the institution as such. It’s not bursting it open, it’s not putting art on the street.

SS: It’s a pretty much academic discussion. You can go outside MoMA to the sidewalk, and it’s a whole different reality. Even before museums existed you could have a similar experience in a church.

AHW: They’re both heterotopias.

SS: A church has different context. You go through the door and you’re in a different space. It’s the same with MoMA. It’s both good and bad for museums. What counts is that we are conscious of all the frames and agendas institutional spaces come with.

AHW: Do you think that art can outlive museums?

SS: Art was happening before museums and will therefore also outlive museums. Art will probably outlive everything because it’s a deep aspect and necessary part of what we call culture. It’s not just survival. It’s culture that makes us thrive. Art is a very primal part of that. Whether a lot of art you see today will survive, I don’t know, but it might outlive museums. Even if there’s no museum some people will feel the need to express something in a non-linguistic way. Language has its limits, more so than painting. An artwork is a form of very open communication that is not so defined as a text or a contract. That’s exactly the advantage. Everybody can talk about it and say, “what the fuck is this?” I like that.

It’s good for people to have something about which they can say, “what the fuck is this?” How boring would life be if you couldn’t say that?

When Mobile Porch was on the street in London, in rough parts of Notting Hill, we felt that it was important that people make the first step, that we didn’t demand that they look. That way, it became an exchange. People came up to us and asked, “what the fuck is this?” We said, “what do you think it is?”

Stefan Saffer teaches third year graduate seminar and studio practice in the MFA Art Practice program.