Emese Süvecz: We could start our conversation with a text by the French philosopher, Henry Bergson, which you proposed to the group in the Free School seminar for close reading. I was wondering how you came across this text? Can we say that Bergson’s oeuvre is part of the current canon constructed by the art world? I am referring in particular to those texts that are circulating among art people, or in art schools. I ask this because while Bergson was a highly influential author during his lifetime before the First World War, his name was not really significant later. After the Second World War, as early as the ’60s, Gilles Deleuze devoted a book to his work—maybe this was a kind of rediscovery of his theory. But still, I found it interesting that for a Free School seminar in Budapest you choose a text such “The Memory of the Present and False Recognition” by Henry Bergson.
Anders Kreuger: I think most people, including myself, found out about Bergson through Deleuze. First of all, you can find about him through The Movement Image. Cinema 1 (1983). The book about Bergson’s work was the one that Deleuze published outside of the purely academic network. Bergson is a fantastic writer because he is so into visualizing things. If you read only the essay we are discussing, you know that he always articulates thoughts through images that you can continue thinking about. The structure of his writing makes him attractive to people who are interested in visuality. Thoughts are expressed in visual figures, he always prepares the ground for his ideas by packaging information in such a way that you are propelled towards an image he has set up for you and then he leads you on through other images. Visualizing figures has a capacity to touch people who work with images. It’s very suggestive how it is written. That is what makes him a great philosopher of visuality—his images of thoughts are so pregnant with meaning that they stay with you.
ES: Nevertheless I suppose that in the seminar your main interest was not in connection with Bergon’s metaphorical way of expression, but with his theory of the co-engendering of past and present. He is interested in memory in terms of how memory becomes the motor of the future. He defines memory as attention to life.
AK: Bergson’s precise expression in this text is that the brain is attention to life. We should not look in the brain if we want to understand how the mind works.
ES: Because the mind is much larger than the brain.
AK: Yes, and memories are not stored in the brain, but memories are another facet of perception. So perception guides us to the future that you can never predict. We need guidance in terms of perception of the future. The rest becomes memory. It’s not stored physically in the brain, what the brain does is that it helps us to stay active and attentive to what’s happening around us. What it does is that it introduces a delay between the sensory input, what we get, and the motoric response to that input, what we perform. If there was not such delay, there could not be thinking. Attention to life for him is basically a metaphor for thought, in the sense that we need to attend to what is happening and to respond to it, and that does not preclude reflection or abstraction. There is a whole interesting school now in cognitive research and also in aesthetics talking about embodied meaning—it’s very compatible with Bergson’s teaching.
ES: Bergson says that he offers his view simply as a methodological indication with no other objective than that of pointing in a direction for theoretical inquiry. So I think his text can be read as presenting possible ways of thinking about time and history in general; it is not only about memory in a literal sense.
AK: Of course! And how can time possibly be thought and experienced; we should not always believe that time is our way of talking about time. My interest basically was to use Bergson as an example of a thinker who could be important for people in visual arts today because of his engagement in topical ideas. He was very well rooted in both centuries. He lived half of his life—exactly forty-one years—in the nineteenth century, and exactly forty-one years in the twentieth century. He was very well aware of the problems that were topical in both centuries. He insisted on developing a theory that would address these problems, such as the problem of evolution, the illusion of movement in cinema, Einstein’s theory of relativity. He was trying to think new thoughts in a sense that philosophy was not only about the canon and the redefinition of old problems.
ES: Your seminar was called An Exercise in Speculation, how were you able to use the selected text and Miriam’s films for speculation?
AK: We used the text to illustrate how speculative thoughts can be articulated in language. The seminar was not only about the presentation of a text and films. The way we tried to engage the participants was itself a case study of speculation.
ES: Some participants felt that you were experimenting with “provocation”: your intention was to provoke the group, but you failed. Is this a misunderstanding, or how do you see the two days you spent with the group?
AK: We were not trying to provoke.
Miriam Bäckström: Speculation can never have a goal. That’s why it is complicated, and quite dangerous sometimes. You don’t know the outcome, you don’t know what situation you will end up with, like in my film, Kira Carpelan, where my position became rather uncomfortable. In every situation where people have to communicate you give each other roles and if somebody defines himself or herself as a student, the other one becomes a teacher; or, if I am the victim then you are the aggressor. It is always a matter of relations, and if you speculate with other people then you have to be aware of the situation, and of course, be aware of the power relations.
ES: Did you have any guidelines as to what, why, and how to work with the group?
MB: We didn’t prepare anything. Our method was to be without a method. Anders and I have worked together in several situations. After a while we realized that we are both interested in speculation. When Anders was invited to the Free School, he invited me to join him in a speculation. We just decided to make it interesting and just try to speculate, and also to bring the people in who were there.
AK: We didn’t start the seminar by talking much about ourselves. On the contrary, we spent quite a lot of time asking the participants about themselves.
MB: Thus everybody became part of the discussion. We have done situations similar to this—three times before—with a group of people who thought they were the audience, but at the end they were involved in a speculation. Sometimes we actually failed, because the audience wanted to be an audience and nothing else. You have to be very sensible when the situation is changing, you can’t make them responsible for saying no, which happened, for example, in my film, Kira Carpelan.
ES: Kira Carpelan is a real person, an artist who was participating in your film on speculation; at that time she was an art student and was about to graduate. The film is about a situation that you create by inviting Kira to exhibit in an art space where you were invited to make a solo show. Kira has access to all of your resources including your salary, even your diaries, in order to make the show, meanwhile you make a video of the yearlong preparation. At the end of the film—which is also the end of the process—Kira presents a video in the exhibition space, in which you are one of the actors. In your film we can see the opening of your solo show entitled “Miriam Bäckström: Kira Carpelan.”
MB: Normally, when you watch a film you believe what is there and you don’t think of yourself. With these films—Kira Carpelan, Rebecka, and The Viewer—I wanted to do the opposite: you should be aware of who you are when you are watching the film; aware of your own thoughts, your own reflections. You are present and at the same time you are watching the film. Film in itself is a kind of speculation, it is a relatively new medium, its language is not so developed—I believe there is much to do.
ES: To undermine the traditional position of the viewer was already a feature of classical avant-garde cinema. How do you situate your artistic method in connection with this tradition?
MB: Since I use the medium as an artist I allow myself to speculate. If you are studying in a film school you are already stuck in some kind of structure. I have a profession; I have an identity as an artist. I don’t have a problem with expanding it in terms of using various materials and situations—in each case I consider myself as an artist. I am interested in in-between situations where it may be problematic for somebody to identify my position or what I am doing. I make it problematic to identify my role.
ES: There were no clear roles and there was no method. What did you do then with the group during the two days?
MB: The Free School seminar was extremely interesting for me, because it changed a lot during the two days. At the beginning, everybody presented himself or herself and it was fantastic to listen to a personality who embodies various roles. To work with participants you didn’t know, but who were interested in talking about their own history and practice, was a fortunate situation. The seminar was about putting together things you normally don’t combine and then observing the result.
AK: We were not trying to give any prescription of how things should be, we were not really defining any topic saying that this is an exercise for speculation and we will give you some food for thoughts. We were not talking about collaboration as a social practice, but we gave an example of how this way of thinking could look, how thinking could be performed.
ES: Do you consider situations such as the Free School seminar a form of art?
MB: It was not speculative enough to become a work of art.
ES: What is the difference between your approach as seminar leaders and the tools of critical pedagogy? Do you consider speculation as a peculiar form of pedagogy?
AK: Critical pedagogy is mainly about empowerment and liberation. We use speculation to reexamine some of the established notions of hierarchy in terms of mental practice. Redefined and disciplined thinking operations are somehow never really questioned, whereas anything that defines itself in opposition to that is immediately labeled as questionable, as speculative thoughts, or as spiritual practice, particularly in Eastern European culture where science is a fetish. In that case it can also be empowerment, particularly in an art education situation.
The interview was conducted during the winter of 2008-09 in Malmö and Stockholm.
Emese Süvecz is a cultural worker, studied art history, gender and critical studies. She was the founding editor of tranzitblog (2007-2013), curator of Catalyst Award at tranzit.hu (2010-13), the project manger of tranzit.hu action days (2013-14). Her current project is Regional Workshop and a follow-up for Women’s Rights Advocates: How Should we Reframe Pro-Choice Messages in Central and Eastern Europe? in collaboration with Tactical Technology Collective, Berlin at Patent Association Against Patriarchy.