Interview with Santiago Sierra
“We as artists have to find the way how to confront the state and capitalism.”
Santiago Sierra is Spain’s most well-known international artist. To some, his work is polemic; to others, it is pertinent, but it does not leave anyone indifferent. It reflects on the contradictions and paradoxes of the capitalist system, of which the art world is just another part, albeit a sophisticated one. In this interview, we discuss NO, Global Tour, his work in progress, as well as globalization, capitalism, the art world, and its discontents.
BY PACO BARRAGÁN
Paco Barragán - Are we living in the “NO” era?
Santiago Sierra - Yes, clearly. The most ubiquitous “NO” is from the state and capitalism. It’s a “NO” written in capital letters in order to domesticate the citizen. From the perspective of those at the bottom, there is double negation: from the father to his son, and from the son to the father, which is a different kind of “NO.”
P.B. - This reminds me strongly of Naomi Klein and her book, No Logo, as when you open it you see “No Choice,” “No Space,” “No Jobs,” which is a good description of what’s going on right now.
S.S. - Yes, it’s interesting that you recall it, as I recently tried writing the word “shock” in huge letters in a Sydney, Australia, port called Hungry Mile, where there were long lines of workers during the crisis of 1929. We tried to make it the biggest graffiti in the world, so Naomi Klein is appropriate.
P.B. - Let’s talk about NO, Global Tour, which started in Luca, north of Italy on July 18, 2009. It is a huge sculpture saying “NO” in Arial type font. It’s a work in progress that has visited cities like Berlin, New York, Brussels, Washington, Toronto, and Miami, and it will visit Iceland in January. How did this work come about?
S.S. - I was saying to myself that I wasn’t doing it properly, or maybe yes, but maybe it was too much work, especially when you make, for example, 12 pieces a year. And when you make a piece each time in a different country it’s not only a big effort, but also difficult to hit the nail on the head each time; and it’s also an important effort in terms of understanding a context and a reality which isn’t mine. On another term, it didn’t really reflect the life I have now, which is far more stable than before where my life was nomadic, a kind of road movie. So, a multi-contextual piece like the “NO” was the solution, as this is what came in mind when I considered the society we live in, the political system, and its whole framework. So a big “NO” was the right answer. And I also liked the “NO” because it’s the only language that you can have against power.
THE POPE AND THE ROAD MOVIE
P.B. - The NO is interesting because it’s visually very strong but semantically open. It has crossed iconical areas and regions; for example, in East Germany it went through mining and other economically depressed regions, it also passed in front of NATO headquarters, the European Parliament, Wall Street, and Times Square, and you even projected the NO on the Pope’s back in Spain. Was there a road map?
S.S. - Yes and no. There were places where it was important that the NO would go through, like the city of London, that is, spots that concentrate a huge amount of evilness. In London, you could also see the death counter: the counter of the number of deaths worldwide according to the American Institute of Statistics. So, there are spots clearly selected, like NATO, the great temple of slaughter and barbarity, and the other great temples of slaughter and barbarity: the Pentagon and Wall Street. In Germany, it was more metaphorical. I was not only interested in monuments of power, but also in places where people struggle to make ends meet because of the economic depression. In Detroit, for example, we visited General Motor’s headquarters and all the neighboring areas, which are totally empty now, like ghost towns. And the NO will travel to Iceland. And yes, last August we projected a NO on the Pope’s back in Madrid, and that was a huge pleasure for me!
P.B. - Iceland is an interesting example because the people carried out a ‘putsch’ against capitalism and its powers, and decided not to pay back what its bankers had squandered.
S.S. - Yes, but Iceland is a country of 300,000 people and everyone practically knows each other. In Europe, for example in France, Germany, or the United Kingdom– there are generations and generations of deeply-rooted crooks and thieves that have had control over abuse and larceny since immemorial times, actual whole lineages that you can trace to the Middle Ages. Now, the Icelandic solution is enviable, but in the rest of Europe that is unimaginable and we are heading towards a fascist dictatorship.
P.B. - This work reminds me a lot of the loud NO you did for the Spanish Pavilion at Venice in 2003, where you hid the word “Spain” from the pavilion and only people with a Spanish passport or ID could access it. A NO against nationalism, the art world, globalization…
S.S. - Yes, of course. We are talking about art and culture, but you have to treat it like your worst enemy, and this is my guideline. And why should the art world be my enemy? Because the art world is not what it claims to be. We are in front of a theater where always the same is being sublimated over and over again: plutocracy, hoarding, and the enrichment of a small group at the expense of a large majority. And the art world is part of that, and part of that surplus that we grant the collector as a connoisseur. I’m against that, and against the whole idea of “nation” and against “globalization.”
We should be very cautious, especially with “globalization,” as it looks like we’re facing a new and highly topical issue by using a new word, but in reality it’s a phenomenon that already advented with the Renaissance and the birth of Capitalism, first very slowly and now at a runaway pace.
P.B. - You also said “NO” to the National Art Prize in Spain. Why? Didn’t you have have the slightest doubt? It was after all a 30,000 euros prize.
S.S. - Well, it’s a considerable amount of money, and everyone appreciates it, especially in economic times like these. But this is also the price you pay for being able or experiencing the pleasure of expressing yourself. On the other hand, I have to say with all honesty that it wasn’t something I totally improvised. I knew people that had already been proposed for the prize, so the fantasy was already there. I mean, I already fantasized about what I was going to do in case I was given the prize.
P.B. - Let’s talk about Wall Street and, especially about Occupy Wall Street, which is connected with the 15-M “indignados” movement in Madrid. For the past 15 years there has been more political art or at least art with a political focus. I see a clear disconnect between our art world and society in general, as we can see with these above-mentioned movements. What is your opinion about it?
S.S. - No, I don’t think so. For example, I always see artists at Plaza del Sol square in Madrid in the 15-M movement. Maybe there is more political art among the younger generations. In the 90s, I was living in Latin America, in Mexico.
SELF-ORGANIZATION INSTEAD OF DEMONSTRATION
P.B. - Yes, but Latin America, and in Mexico in particular I see that art deals much more with society and urgent social and political issues, unlike the U.S. or Europe, where we work on a more formal level.
S.S. - Well, there are artists that are political, like Democracia in Spain. But having said that, I don’t like to manifest myself or participate in demonstrations, as that is a kind of secular procession in which instead of asking the Virgin for a miracle, we ask a guy with a tie to solve our problems. The guy with the tie is not there to solve anything, he is just there to maintain the status quo.
What I think is that people should not go out and manifest themselves, but start doing things for themselves– explore forms of self-organization on every level, and start breaking the ties with the state: stop working for the state, don’t let your children join their armies, overthrow the actual educational system and provide a parallel one, and so on. Basically, get out of the system. It’s about deploying an active and creative opposition in order to create a new society.
P.B. - In this same sense, don’t you think that what we do in the art world hardly ever has real repercussions in society?
S.S. - Well, I do think that art can be very powerful, and it depends on how you use it. As a matter of fact, art is the favorite tool of politicians, the state and capitalism; art is what the Catholic Church uses with its churches and its performative rituals, in order to fascinate the believer; and art is also all the rubbish television we see where everything is like a fantastic Hollywood script where the dead actors don’t even know they are actors.
I have this polemic with Artur Żmijewski, who is curating the Berlin Biennale, as he is insisting that I shouldn’t make a piece of art but a political action; and this is rather funny as he is a curator, and from the Berlin Biennale.
I think we shouldn’t push the envelope like that, and each one of us should be useful to society doing his or her work, and not become a problem to society. We as artists have to find the way we confront the state and capitalism, and the same should be valid with an architect, a doctor, and so on.
P.B. - Your work has given rise to controversy on many occasions. Let’s recall your action on New Street in Birmingham, England, (the city’s busiest shopping street) in 2002, titled Person Saying a Phrase, with a homeless person holding a sign which said: “My participation in this project could generate $72,000 profit. I am paid 5 pounds.” We always find in the heart of your praxis the Marxian concept of “labor as added value.”
S.S. - Time, body, and intelligence are considered as if they do not belong to us, as they are being auctioned on a market to the high bidder. That’s how the system works. And when we talk about the art world, it looks like we are talking about a golden cage, a special place, and art can be many things, but it also forms part of the capitalist system, and as such it houses the same injustices.
P.B. - Yes, these contradictions are typical of the art world. Thank you for your time.