by Jonathan Griffin
JONATHAN GRIFFIN Is the scanner a photographic tool for you, or is it more to do with collage?
LUCIE STAHL I’m quite an impatient person so the immediacy of working with a scanner is nice. It is of course a bit like making photograms but without the inconvenience of having to stand around in a darkroom full of chemicals all day. It gives me time to do a lot of stuff I’d rather be doing than making art. I’m often asked about the process and presentation of photography in relation to my work and my use of the scanner, but my work is not necessarily about photography. Of course it is unavoidable but it’s just not something I think about. I think more about the stuff that surrounds us in general. Photography is one of those things. I don’t really distinguish between the frame and the content.
JG What about the role of liquidity in your work? Is wetness – for example, in the gels and other substances that you scan, or in the polyurethane coating on the images – a cohesive element?
LS I’m pretty much a control freak so choosing materials which undermine that is good therapy, or at least that’s what the imaginary therapist in my head just told me to say. Materials are the subject and object all mixed up in a big mush. I thought it was important to work with the spectrum of fluids, but now I’m not so sure. Blueberry juice and tit milk are really different from crude oil and polyurethane. Plastic is practical, but I don’t want to die of laziness. I’ve come to realize that what I do is a tiny pathetic model of the greater machinations out there.
JG Do you break a lot of equipment or are you super-fastidious in the studio?
LS I go through a number of machines a year.
JG If we take wetness to be an index of our bodies, is the incompatibility of water and digital media a basic manifestation of the alienating nature of technology?
LS Well there are a few things that aren’t compatible with water, like lungs or toasters. I appreciate attempts to make the use of digital media more human. It’s about building bridges with our brains. I imagine a digital footprint very literally, as if it were a little moist. I just made a new work called Water is Life (2013) which features an alien – actually it’s the robot in Will Smith’s I, Robot  but it looks more like an alien to me – and above the alien/robot dude is a protesting lady holding up a sign that says water is life. So to answer your question, yes.
JG In your recent work you have done away with the polyurethane coating that encased most of your earlier prints and produced images that seem far more to do with photocopiers and cut paper collage than the spatial effects of high resolution scanning. The speed and immediacy of these techniques makes me think more of Agitprop imagery. In these works are you more concerned with the ‘look’ of political messaging or with the content itself?
LS The new pieces are part of a body of work that I’ve been developing for a while now, in which I hold a trash can with collaged elements on it over a scanner, except now they’re black and white and sometimes have some extra parts layered on top. The early works that you mention were about non sequitur humour. Which for me was dangerous since I think non sequiturs can be so horrid. Anyway, most of those posters had a short or very short story thrown into them on scraps of paper. These stories were more or less personal or political anecdotes accompanied by objects and materials which deflected from, or reinforced, the content of the story. So between varying ambitions you find some of the hopes I have for how my work might function. Now, I’m looking at the idea of Agitprop in semiotic terms. What use are these conventions in the construction of images these days? What sort of currency does Agitprop carry; who does it speak to and under what conditions does it speak? Most of all, can it service me and my desires? So if you’re asking me if I’m only interested in the ‘look’ of Agitprop, then no. But if you are asking me if I’m interested in what the look of Agitprop might mean today, then yes. I’m interested in the detail where protest can be registered. Protest is not just a busy intersection these days, it’s a multi lane pile-up. If I can ever get around to eking out a Banksy joke I will be both so embarrassed and proud of myself.
JG So do you think that today there is a life for this kind of Agitprop material outside the realm of advertising? How might it service your desires, as you say? And why are non sequiturs horrid?
LS Non sequiturs are a favourite form of mine. Will Ferrell, Zach Galifianakis, Tracy Morgan and Kristen Schaal are masters. But non sequiturs seem to have also become this neat and tidy bohemian trope that satisfies normal-ass middle class taste. I’m thinking of the TV show Wilfred or that terrible director Wes Anderson. He’s so awful. Non-sequiturs became so indie rock. And I didn’t mean to imply that Agitprop doesn’t exist outside of the realm of advertising. Propaganda isn’t always advertising. Will Benedict always makes fun of me for being sentimental, or melancholic. Then I tell him that I like Caspar David Friedrich which he finds disgusting. Maybe I’m joking to irritate him, but German fatalism is inherent in my character. Agitprop, even if only in my fantasy, embodies a certain sincerity. It’s embarrassing in that way. That’s why it works so well for advertising and youth culture. And apparently for me. I’m definitely not trying to reclaim Agitprop from advertising. I don’t care. Unlike multinational corporations, I can share.
JG What are the other things you share with advertising? I’m thinking about this particular kind of frontal address – not only aesthetic but also speaking to the viewer in a sincere, first person voice while incorporating elements that are generic, mass-produced.
LS I don’t know how sincere those voices are … I never know what people get out of my texts. I address advertising quite directly in Shaving Lady  – or, to be more precise, Austrian advertising. The text is of course about cross-dressing, genderfucking, or whatever you want to call it. Most people read it as a feminist piece about having to shave your legs. That never crossed my mind.
JG Right – well I suppose that one way it diverges from advertising is in the tone of its humour. I often never quite know which part of the story I’m meant to be laughing at. It’s like you use comedy as a complicating ingredient, while advertising uses it as a lubricant.
LS Yeah, I don’t know if the texts are funny.
JG Do you expect us to trust the voice that speaks through text in your work or should we treat her/him with scepticism?
LS I wouldn’t believe everything the voice tells you.
JG Could you tell me a bit about how your sculptures relate to your image-based work? To be honest, when I first saw your big whisk sculpture (Whisk, 2009), I would never have guessed that such a singular object was made by you.
LS I made a couple of those things. The whisk was from a series of three sculptures I made for the Kunstverein Nürnberg. There was also a glass with a ball and chain connected to it. And a huge pepper grinder with a vacuum nozzle on top that came out of a collaboration with Wolfgang Breuer, which was a normal sized pepper grinder with a vacuum cleaner nozzle on top which was used to dispense the pepper. I decided to make it really big so that I could fit a video projector inside. All three objects were designed to hold video projectors but I ended up only showing the huge pepper grinder that way. Which was a mistake. I also made a couple of sculptures with Will Benedict for the show at the Kunstverein in Cologne which are called stomach tables: normal café tables with a huge plastic stomach as the base. The ones at the Kunstverein in Cologne were brown.
JG You have spent a lot of time in Los Angeles recently. What, in particular, has that experience brought to your work?
LS I lived in L.A. for a few months back in 2005 after I finished art school in Frankfurt. My boyfriend is from L.A. so I’ve had to deal with that state of mind for a while now. It’s a big city and I met some people I like. People open galleries in alleys or strip malls, which I guess is normal for them but seems pretty exotic to me. There’s a guy named Paul Theriault who opened a gallery in his garage, back around 2003, called The Peanut Butter Shop. I never went there but I heard the inside of the garage was painted in a purplish brown and overlooked the Silver Lake reservoir. He put together crazy shows with Will Benedict, Lucy Dodd, Dawn Kasper, Jason Rhoades, Yutaka Sone and others. I bring this up because I don’t think many people know about it. Which shows just how big the city is and how really cool stuff that was happening ten years ago is lost in history. The turnover and pace of change in L.A. is intense. And there are now new galleries in garages to replace the old ones. My friends Liz Craft and Pentti Monkkonen run a really nice space called Paradise Garage in Venice. They have a fire pit.
JG For the show that you did there this year you cut a circular hole in your poster – and the wall on which it was hanging – so that one could see through into the garden outside. Was that a kind of escape hatch, and if so, what from?
LS Yes, maybe an escape in the Venice Beach sense. I saw it more as a portal – a leaky portal, like a leaky brain. It’s my psychotropic surrealist phase in one brief show. Basically I was hanging around Venice Beach too much and I made a work about a CGI Smurfshroom and leaky brains that live on the outside and the inside at the same time. But I guess Giorgio, Liz and Pentti’s cat, might have seen it as an escape hatch. Or maybe the cat saw it as a portal, I don’t know. But no, I saw it more like a big old drainage pipe, just that nothing would come out of it except a couple of arms at the opening.
JG How does the energy of a European city like Vienna, where you live normally, compare to Los Angeles?
LS Vienna is boring. But that’s not so bad because the state and highly subsidized private sector bribe us with stuff. We have beautifully maintained parks, the best film museum in the world, financing for the arts and a very good Tibetan restaurant. The problem with Vienna is that people still travel in horse-drawn carriages, and the door handles on trains are made of pigskin. The only thing that I’ll miss when I move away from this place is the tap water.
JG Can you tell me a bit about how the operation of Pro Choice, the space you and Will Benedict run in Vienna, dovetails with your studio practice?
LS We started Pro Choice [in 2008] because we were lonely. And yes, of course there were shows that pretty much came right out of our own practice, like the poster show [Bulletin Board Blvd, 2009] for me, or the Gaylen Gerber show  for Will. But I think the way we run the space shares aspects of how Will and I think about our work in general: as being very straightforward. So for the first three years we were in this space in the 1st district. It was big and had really nice details that our friend the artist Anita Leisz helped us with. But then we got kicked out because our deal was only a fraction of what the full rent should have been. We moved to Praterstern, which is a huge roundabout that encircles one of the main train stations in Vienna and is also the entrance to the Prater, the amusement park with the big ferris wheel that people know from the movie The Third Man . This new space is a pedestrian tunnel that led from the city into the Prater under the S-Bahn. The point of me bringing this up is the way we approached renovating this tunnel. We were going to make what looked like a commercial gallery, ignoring as much as we could the fact that the space was public. This sort of pig-headedness works for me because in the tunnel is a tiny gay bar called Blue Banana and a pizza place that used to be called Benu but is now called American Diner and is run by Serbians. So basically we are the least interesting thing in the tunnel and being straightforward about this isn’t just pig-headed, it’s a moral position. We’ve been in that tunnel space since about 2011. The best show we did there was by artist and journalist David Leonard from Los Angeles who painted the entire space green, including the floor, and videotaped whatever went on, interviewing a bunch of people and turning the whole thing into this explicitly social event. The video got into the interesting bits about artists as agents of gentrification. We also opened up a little bar called L’Ocean Licker which Pentti Monkkonen designed for us and which is in a former men’s urinal in this tunnel and is run by our friends Josefin Granqvist and Catharina Wronn.
JG In your own work you’ve collaborated with Will Benedict and others, including the British artist Tom Humphreys. Is collaboration an equally balanced process for you, or does one party get more out of it than the other?
LS The show with Tom at What Pipeline in Detroit earlier this year came out of an idea to make two solo shows on top of each other. So that’s what we did. Otherwise I don’t collaborate very often. Or rather, I collaborate all the time. I don’t know where a collaboration starts or ends, or whose idea it is in the end – Will’s, Tom’s, mine – who cares.
Lucie Stahl is an artist who lives and works in Vienna. She has had recent solo exhibitions at Gió Marconi, Milan, dépendance, Brussels and What Pipeline, Detroit (with Tom Humphreys). Stahl will have a solo show later this year at Neue Alte Brücke, Frankfurt and at Freedman Fitzpatrick, Los Angeles in 2014.
First published: Frieze d/e, issue 12, December 2013