Aline Bouvy talks about ‘The Future of Not Working’ – at CIAP, Hasselt
In the context of her solo exhibition at Kunstverein CIAP, Aline Bouvy talks to the institution’s artistic director Louise Osieka about The Future of Not Working, her practice, language and linguistic associations, power structures, the dematerialisation of labour and more.
Louise Osieka: It has been clear from the past that the titles of your exhibitions have been elements that gave direction and support to your work. Not only because they refer to a specific context content-wise but also because of their linguistic nature. Could you speak to this in the context of The Future of Not Working?
Aline Bouvy: Earlier this year, I came across an article in The New York Times about an experimental project by GiveDirectly in a small village in Kenya whose inhabitants were given monthly income for a period of 12 years. A first, I was intrigued by the somehow provocative twist of the article’s title: The future of not working. Was this title suggesting that people wouldn’t have or want to work at all? Was it the idea of a ‘not working’ future versus the vision of a future of total (human) inactivity? The content and implications of this article have had a great impact on me. I particularly liked the passage when the author tells about all these charities that don’t want to just give cash to people in need, but think it helps them more to provide them with goods as if ‘the poor’ wouldn’t know what’s best for them or couldn’t handle money by themselves. I like that it questions the fish story: “If you give a man a fish, he’ll eat a day, if you learn him how to fish…” The whole ‘taking-you-by-the-hand’ thing, because ‘you’ don’t know but ‘we’ will teach you. This brings us to these big rhetorical gaps; these abysses in daily language that keep shrinking our narratives and our visions about other possible ways of doing and dealing with ourselves and others. It raises a lot of thoughts about the word ‘work’ and it’s interesting to think of the idea of work in relation to the practice of art as well.
LO: How do you experience the position of the artist in this debate?
AB: I find it puzzling that on one hand the state-funded educational system offers many opportunities for young people to get involved in art programmes, while on the other hand, once you have your MA you are completely left on your own with a very vague status that doesn’t function. What comes into play is a division between those who can afford to live off personal welfare and those who will have to get by through other ways. Although the Arts at large can rely on state funding, for many it remains a privilege to access the possibility of developing a full-time practice. Here, I use the term ‘practice’ in a very general sense, even beyond the Arts. Our societies like to push forward ideas of innovation, but when you finally come up with something really new—which means something that also carries new referents outside of any known scheme—suddenly you’ll notice these same societies quickly drawing back to traditional and obsolete systems. The concept of a universal basic income is the most exciting thing I have come across in years. It’s not an unemployment benefit; it’s that very minimal ‘plus’ for everyone to pursuit their personal development. It offers the possibility for true invention.
LO: The exhibition opens with a powerful sculpture. It’s a round bread that acquired its black colour due to the addition of coal to the dough. In the middle, the dough pulls together as a closing muscle. It sets the tone for a layered exhibition permeated with symbols. You undermine the dominant power structures of our society, while making your critical voice ‘digestible’ for the viewer through abstraction, multiplication and parody.
AB: I’m trying to work something out here. The context of CIAP, the former activities that this building has had, and still seems to exude from every pores of the walls. It’s a place of power, of decision-making, of exhausting administrative processes. It has a certain grandeur, but at the same time it’s slowly running down. I guess these features have had a great impact on my working process for this exhibition, or at least I have let those elements develop in a strange, almost fantastical way. Sometimes I see the works as a combination of fairy-tales props and a rebus puzzle. It’s interesting, for instance, how charcoal becomes trendy today in organic and well-being food, even if it’s been fucking up generations of miner’s lungs. Some use it as a natural way to ease stomach pain and bad digestion. I prefer its vomiting effects: it’s used as an emergency treatment for certain kinds of severe poisoning and OD’s. I like that it’s presented here in the shape of a large, family-size bread we could eat of all together, while expelling all the possible mad-driving toxins. The idea of letting go, of fluidity, of opening the valves, a joyful communal diarrhoea prompted me to ask the baker how we could form a sort of orifice in the bread. He folded his arm and pushed his elbow far in the middle of the fresh dough. It was a beautiful gesture.
LO: You are a polyglot who was raised in Luxembourg in a three-lingual environment (Lux, German, Spanish). Later, you also learned Dutch, French and English. This language sensitivity seems to be a red thread throughout your artistic practice. This exhibition also features a complex network of linguistic references. Can you point them out and indicate how they lend meaning to the whole?
AB: I guess that this comes from a way of approaching meaning through mental association—a method that is reinforced by the fact that I continuously switch languages. It’s like you automatically scan the words in these languages and perceive their linguistic spectrum. I’m actually thinking of the word Kohle in German, it’s strange really, I instantly think of Christiane F. because in the book, Kohle is a big deal, ‘Kohle anschaffen’, ‘Hast du Kohle dabei ?’, ‘Keine Kohle!’,… I was fourteen when my parents came home with the book one day. I probably read it in German about three times in a row. The same word in French or in Spanish, my 2 native languages, immediately bring up violent images of my grandmother’s stories about her life as a miner’s daughter in northern Spain from the thirties to her arrival in the early sixties in a bus at Brussels’ Gare du Midi. She left my mother behind with her uncle because she thought she was not going to be able to work and take care of her at the same time. While they were separated, without seeing each other for more than six years, my grandmother’s first job was to take care of rich Italian family’s kids. She was living with them for several years as their nanny and housekeeper, or gouvernante in French. I associate CIAP with the image of a gouverneur, his private apartments being under the same roof. And yes, it’s funny, or rather strange, that a same word sometimes dramatically changes its meaning by being male or female. Le gouverneur rules a province, a state, a colony, la gouvernante cleans, cooks, takes care of kids in a house, a family, that isn’t hers.
LO: To stay with the subject of automation replacing human labour: it seems some of your work in the exhibition refers to the dematerialisation of labour and thus economics and money. You bring together discarded raw materials (coal) and tools (ATM machine) in a space where a guillotine-like sculpture seems to chop off a black tongue. Just like the weed, stray dogs and urine, they are the waste elements of our society. Meanwhile, the coal is considered to be ‘dirty’ and ATM machines will soon follow. You don’t bring these elements up for nostalgic or formalistic reasons, but you seem to bring them back to the realm of the norm.
AB: It’s interesting that you make a parallel between the stray dogs, the wild weeds, and the ATM machines. I don’t know; it’s a device that is present in my daily environment, which I use a few times a week. In some places in Brussels, you should see the state in which some ATM machines are left behind: a total mess, an extreme vision of violence. When you go to cleaner parts of the city, the cleanness is just as violent. These ATM machines are the last stage before the digital payments happen through smartphones. Those that are produced now are the last ones. Like with the telephone cabins, they will totally disappear in a few years time. There are a lot of things you could do in telephone cabins. Like hiding from the rain. There are a lot of things that people do in cash dispensers. There are less and less ways to make your space in public space. Sometimes I feel there are some muscles in my right hand that hurt and that I’ve never felt before. It’s from manipulating my phone. It’s from making my space in public space.
LO: In the antechamber a series of six keys are lying on the floor. Each key represents a different skin tone that matches an existing emoticon skin tone. The baseline of the opened hand on the mirror reads as a prayer, an open question. Is the key to success accessible to all?
AO: I found that key in the shop window opposite the baker where I did the charcoal bread. It’s a small shop that sells DIY stuff in the Alsembergsesteenweg. I asked the shop owner if I could borrow the key for a couple of days to make a silicone mould. I had yellow pigment for Jesmonite that I intended using for a figurine. I wanted the figurine to be yellow, like the yellow of generic emoticons. I wanted to make a derivation of that same figurine in the different skin tones that you can select when you don’t want to use the generic yellow emoticon—like when you want to customize your emoji’s skin colour, or just don’t like yellow because it makes you look like a Simpson or suffering from jaundice. In between the different skin tones, I made a yellow key and I thought: “I’m going to make that object in all available skin tones rather than the figurine”. Later I read that those skin tones are based on the Fitzpatrick scale, a numerical classification scheme for human skin colour. It’s been introduced to focus on diversity as if you have to identify racially in a simple text message or tweet.
LO: You use materials and media according to the idea that you have in mind. This makes your artistic practice very diverse. Nevertheless, it is striking that the lion’s share of the presented work is conceived with Jesmonite, a composite construction product invented by Peter Hawkins in 1984 as a safe alternative to fiber optics and a lighter variant of cast concrete. What draws you to this material?
AB: Jesmonite is the natural alternative for resin. It’s like a white powder made out of stone that you mix with a sort of acryl. You apply one plain layer, then 2 or 3 layers with fiber glass. This allows for big formats that can remain hollow and not too heavy. It’s been invented for prop making and stage design in cinema and theatre. The general aspect is like plaster or gypsum, a slightly bit rosé in a general off-white. I certainly like the blankness of the non-pigmented Jesmonite casts. I like to throw whatever is on my way on a rough earth base, make a silicon mould and then cast it in blank Jesmonite. It’s a great unifier that puts every material, object, or device on the same level. I like to finish off my casts with a bit of natural wax that I gently polish with a shoe brush or an old sock. It lets a cigarette butt shine as much as a coin or a pearl.
The Future of Not Working
11 June – 27 August 2017
Courtesy of the artist and CIAP, Hasselt
Photography: Kristof Vranken