'Often it’s just waiting until something happens.' Thomas Kleiner

Tomas Kleiner studied with Herbert Brandl, Katharina Grosse and Gregor Schneider at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf. He graduated in July 2018. Art Springboard’s Wolfram Schnelle discussed Kleiner’s practice with him in Düsseldorf in July 2018.

Wolfram Schnelle: I would like to start with the work you did for your degree show. Could you talk about what it is?

Tomas Kleiner: The degree show presentation was partly determined by a funding application for a travel stipend from the Kunststiftung Nordrhein-Westfalen. Taking my previous work – Verbindungsstücke – as a point of departure, I was thinking about how I could imagine creating work about movement and traveling.

In my work, I’m looking more for modes of working, less for a specific artwork. It’s more like an artistic practice that I try to generate or practice over a certain period of time without necessarily knowing what the result will be. I then try to grasp it by articulating it. The first attempt at articulating the work for my degree show was the funding application. That’s why I see it as the point of departure for this work.

I wrote in the application that I wanted to travel aimlessly. By ‘aimless travel’ I mean something like a floating state. It’s a kind of movement in space and time where it’s not about traveling far but more about having an awareness that at any moment and place you could go to any other place. I tried an aleatory approach, tossing a die at every street corner, or I tried going left one time then one time right and so on, but I already knew that it wouldn’t work. So, I chose a way to travel where I would just make spontaneous decisions, maybe influenced by a street name or an interesting looking place. To stop and to pause in a place was also an important element of the work.

There are a lot of parameters that are part of it. There’s the question of financing. The Deutsch-Französische Jugendwerk gave me money for an exchange with the university in Marseille. The stipulation was that I would be in Marseille for one semester. The other part was the money for aimless travel that I got from the Kunststiftung Nordrhein-Westfalen for the same period of time. Doing both at the same time was kind of a nice dilemma that I could only solve in a performative way. Another parameter was the performativity of everyday life, which is something that I have dealt with in previous works.

W.S.: You talked about a mode or a situation rather than an artwork. During the time that you travelled, were there moments where you said to yourself ‘something interesting’s happening’? Or to put it differently, where and when does art happen?

T.K.: Take the example of a classic exhibition. The artist is given huge authority to choose something that he defines as art, and he isolates it in the exhibition. When you’re within this exhibition context you have a very constructed situation and have already made so many assumptions that you just accept as given: where the exhibition is taking place, what is shown, how it is shown, when it’s shown to the audience, etc.

I want to move out of this context and try to find those situations in everyday life: where or when does something appear? The question of whether it is art is less important. There are moments that appear, that you remember, that might be ‘different’.

The question about the difference between art and life was something that Katharina Grosse asked me during my presentation. In my view that difference doesn’t exist. It became clear to me that I have to find ways of dealing with situations. Everybody deals with situations in some way, but nobody has the authority to declare something as art. It’s something that I would never claim for myself. I would propose or negotiate it, but the other person can always refuse it. And it’s this moment of negotiation that I find so interesting. That’s when the element of performance comes into play, when the audience and the performer come together. I search for these performative moments by saying, let’s have a conversation and spend time together.

W.S.: You’re talking about a performative moment and interaction with another person. Is that other person necessary so that something we might call art can happen?

T.K.: Yes. Funnily enough, during my travels I realised that this ‘other’ doesn’t necessarily have to be a person – but you definitely need the other. And it’s not possible in any other way. There is no situation without somebody or something else.

Inside my car windshield I had a spider that I started to call Janosch. It was my flatmate and my travel companion until it suddenly disappeared. I think it got too hot for Janosch. You could argue that this is also one of the ‘others’. You can have a situation there as well, but the most interesting and intensive exchanges are the ones I have with people.

The other is also very important because I’m often just waiting for the other, and I try to accommodate the other as much as possible. I let the other invite me, ask her or him what they do, or follow them in what they propose. There were some very nice moments in the beginning of my aimless travels where I had no idea where to go. The first thing I did was visit my girlfriend and then I spent some time with friends. A good friend of mine was building a shelf. I just helped him for 2–3 days. I accompanied him and realised that I’m free in regards to time, place, and financials, and I can just adapt to people. In that respect, the other is extremely important. A big part is the attempt to create space for something to potentially happen. Often it’s just waiting until something happens. Something that might otherwise have happened as well, but that might not be perceived in the same way. I’m kind of performing myself as the audience.

W.S.: If you talk about perception, is there something that you hope would happen on the part of the other? What is the other supposed to perceive?

T.K.: A general element that I find very important at this point in time is to be noticed. It’s not about shouting and getting attention, although that happens a lot. In everyday life I see so many performances where people just scream for attention. Attention seeking starts with having huge holes in your jeans or having a fancy haircut .

Katharina Grosse said it’s not possible to ‘encounter’. We might be in the same situation but there is no way to exchange experiences. She also seems to have a different definition of ‘reality’. Of course we never see, hear, or perceive the same thing, even if we are in the same place. But what I realise is that if you spend time together you can exchange a lot. That’s what I find extremely interesting.

One of the big questions that then comes up is whether I share this experience in retrospect or whether I don’t, and at the moment I’m more and more convinced that I don’t need to represent it to others afterwards.

W.S.: So, your approach is a bit like Tino Sehgal’s, who doesn’t want any of his work documented, to the point where he only makes oral contracts for the performances of his work.

T.K.: Yes, but at the same time you have a question of materiality that comes into play. Often there is the assumption that the work I make is immaterial, but I don’t see it at all like that. It’s more a question about movement.

I was dealing a lot with Tino Sehgal to see what material he uses, and the way I see it, it’s the performers. But the performers are not the work itself since they can pass it on to other performers. But it’s still a structure of bodies, something that is very material and relatable. But it’s a constant movement, nothing that you can take into your hands. The body is just something that can show the work. In the end, it’s the same with all other works only that it’s in a slower medium. Take this jam jar. It’s performing itself but at a much slower pace. Because of that we assume that the jam jar will always stay as it is, but of course it’s changing.

The speed of performances is often not recognised as slow enough. That’s why I wonder why I should document the performance and transform it into something else. It’s already happened, it was seen, and at some point it was finished, just like any sculpture will be finished at some point. But if I take notes during the performance then that becomes part of the work as well.

For example, in the conversational work that I did before, I first tried to only have the conversation as the work.

W.S.: Can you give a bit of context? What was the work about?

T.K.: The work is called Verbindungsstück (connecting piece), and it was an important precursor for my traveling work. The work basically consisted of the fact that I would let myself engage in conversations. It sounds simple but as soon as you move into an art context there are a lot of strange questions that come up. The work was part of an exhibition, but it didn’t happen in the exhibition itself. It happened in the public space – on park benches, bus stops, on the train, or at a sausage stand.

And there the question came up: what is part of the work and what isn’t? I contacted some people who I thought it would be very interesting to talk to by email. In a way, this email was the first connecting piece between us, and I debated for a long time whether an email or a phone call prior to a conversation would already be part of the work. In the beginning I tried to include only this verbal element but this reduction is quite limiting and something that might have been done as an artwork in the sixties. In the end, the phone call, the email, waiting for the person, it’s all part of the work. I tried to accept this complexity and how I deal with it is part of a continuous process.

W.S.: When you talk about your work, I have to think about the concept of mindfulness that’s discussed a lot these days. Does this play a role for you?

T.K.: Yes, in a way it does. I discuss my work a lot with my girlfriend who has influenced my work a lot and who deals a lot with philosophy in her own studies. At the same time, I always try to subvert it. It’s not all about a big philosophical question but it’s also about finding a good place to pee. I don’t want it to be too reflective.

W.S.: What exactly do you try to subvert?

T.K.: If you work with language, it happens very quickly that people just move within that language rather than noticing that we are at this moment in the parking lot of a tennis court, having breakfast. It’s not only about the content, it’s also about the context within which you are. That’s the nice thing about performances. They’re very corporeal, which often is neglected. If you read about these performances, you often lose the reference that this is happening somewhere where very funny things often happen.

W.S.: What else have you got planned, what’s next?

T.K.: I would like to paint again, and I’ve thought a lot about how I could do this. I’ve worked together a lot with Marco Biermann, a friend of mine. We sort of became this artist duo, Kleiner Biermann. So, you have the artist duo and then my own persona, Tomas Kleiner, associated with the traveling and the conversational work Verbindungsstück. Now I want to develop a performative or half-performative painter figure. Maybe that’s a good way to start. I want to remain in one place for now and I’m looking for a studio space. I need a break from what I’ve been doing. My skin has gotten quite thin. The works that I’ve done over the last year required a lot of energy, and I need to find a mode of working where I’m less exposed and can exist more for myself.

Finding an additional source of income plays a role as well. If you do performative works you can only realise them through funding – paintings you can sell.

W.S.: What do you mean by a ‘performative painter figure’? How does this figure differentiate itself from the artist who paints?

T.K.: It’s not really different except for the fact that you recognise that you always inhabit different roles at the same time. Maybe it’s a question of making this more explicit and of finding a context for this figure to come into existence.

W.S.: A question about staging. Since you do performative work, the context and how you influence the context always plays a role. What role does it play for you? Are there any specific locations or situations that you look for?

T.K.: I’m always looking for places in the public sphere. In a theatre the separation between performer and audience is way too big. No matter how hard you work against it, you’ll always have this separation. I’m interested in parking lots and places that are transitional, but where it’s possible to pause. Airports, train stations, or parks. I look for these kinds of stages.

There was a festival at the Rhine here in Düsseldorf and I was really in the mood for a swim. I only took two steps into the water and suddenly I had this incredible stage with all the attention on me. It was so extreme that I immediately left the water. Although it was sort of a spontaneous performance situation, it’s not at all what I’m looking for. I’m interested in finding places where you sit next to the stage. It doesn’t always work since you sometimes end up being in focus anyway. During my journey, I realised that the way I placed the bus played a big role. You can create a complete stage or you can place it in a way that you’re half turning your back. Those are the performance situations that I find much more interesting.

W.S.: The audience becomes part of the performance without necessarily noticing it. Or they notice it during the performance or afterwards.

T.K.: Absolutely. And as a performer I put so much energy into those moments that I’m often very curious to understand how much the other has realised. Did they perceive something, or did it never exist for them? Not knowing that is, on one hand a downer but on the other hand, it’s also very exciting because you just don’t know. Just talking about it now I realise that’s something very exciting for me. Maybe she has seen it, maybe not.

W.S.: Which comes back to the question of reality. What is reality, what is happening? Is this an artwork? What is it?

T.K.: And often I find it best to just say ‘I don’t know’. I can’t decide but I would like to talk about it, to negotiate it.

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