Portraits of Artists 85

Conversation with Thomas Bayrle

Konstantin Adamopoulos: You’ve been to China and Japan already a number of times; it’s become a field of work, you produced your latest book there and you also exhibited there. If I remember correctly, it all started in 1964 when you portrayed Mao as a mechanical image object using an image machine. That’s where the topic of reality and mass somehow started.

Thomas Bayrle: Yes. This question of identity has always been an ambiguous issue. Basically, because l lacked the required identity. Perhaps because it was still related to what happened before and that at some point the previous ego just crashed. I was interested in their popular collective method of showing this conglomerate super-ego or this super-form in a perfectly naïve way. Just by having these signboards and rearranging them and thereby forming super-idols or super-forms we had a direct democratic form. Using them you could shape a factory, depict Mao or form any other important element. It was a simple and yet very popular form in which individuals participated because they had their signboards.

KA: So, everyone had a piece of the entire image before them.

TB: Yes. You could actually watch how from these many individuals a whole was formed. Along with this image I was also interested in certain other things, insects for instance. And in that respect it was just as important that I’d read a book written in 1906 by a teacher in South Africa: (Eugène) Marais’ “The Soul of the White Ant”.

TB: This book describes tiny animals capable of dismembering themselves, of giving up their identity by losing their stomach or their intestinal tract. They compound to one big entity which floats in the sea – like a floating city. But the crazy thing was that these animals could both give up their identity and take it back on. Once the entity fell apart the animals re-developed back to individuals, capable of swimming. For me that was just as important as the Mao thing. Or take termites. They are programmed without anyone giving commands. They just know: “Here, at two point ten metres, I add one square centimetre” – to this enormous tower we’re all building together. That means these animals are chemically controlled. It is a form of collective control without anyone telling the others what to do. So, these were the forms I was interested in, and then of course, there was the music. The band “Devo” for instance which had an effect on several people. It expressed something which had already been laid out by “Kraftwerk” and “The Can” and similar bands in Germany. Later, with Techno, it was developed further. Or let’s say, it was an interest in all forms challenging this individual and re-building it. After WW II we just couldn’t believe in the old thing anymore; not after what had happened. This “super-ego” had simply crashed.

KA: But it doesn’t stop there. How is something identified? How are choices made? What I mean is: How are things done from within the mass? What are the achievements? Individual, overall achievements, the energy question?

TB: Yes. I also found in myself that I wasn’t capable of the big individual gesture. So I just divided it up in many small intentions and counted those up. Instead of this grand gesture which I wasn’t buying from myself anyway, I said: I create many intentions, hundreds of them, put them together or add them up. Once I tried out Action Painting but that wasn’t easy. There were also economic questions forcing me to do so. I’ve always regarded the point as an individual – an abstract individual. The point is like a seed from which a plant grows. It represents a content quantity. In that sense I have to reinforce these points or let’s say I just wanted to develop these points. I wanted to emancipate the points by harnessing them with information and increasing that over the years.

KA: You mean something like a grid point?

TB: Yes.

KA: Container?

TB: Yes.

KA: For projections, right?

TB: It’s a normal raster display made up of points. Normally, you only look at the result. The number of points results in a nose or a mouth. But for me it was just as important to individualise the points and to extrapolate these quantities, these individuals or sum them up to a mouth. By doing so, the grains this loaf of bread is made of came more and more into the foreground. To me they were important because they weren’t just dead matter but living beings, small living beings.

KA: You mean when a super cup is formed by cups?

TB: Yes. And that in turn raises the question of mass production. In the beginning I felt nothing but sheer fascination with the mass. Whether it was masses of people, masses of cups or masses of cans – it didn’t matter. Production, mass production, mass distribution – those were the concepts I was interested in most. Looking at what they were doing in China, it was perfectly clear to me that the same was going on here, in the West. Only that here it doesn’t work with goods.

KA: Quantity?

TB: Yes. Industrialisation has brought us total mass production and all the problems it entails – distribution and the like. In the Far East it was still different then. At the time they did that with people, so that for me already in 1966, something prohibitive was taking place. Because I not only regarded but also treated cans, people and cups as totally similar things, I saw them first and foremost as phenomena. My idea was to roll out these masses as wall papers or sculptures, as a three dimensional and two dimensional reality. But there was no ideology in that. It was only about the fact that these were really full masses. You see, everything was to be covered with it, like with measles or scarlet fever, or any pattern really. It can also be just a pattern without immediately being stuffed with ideology.

KA: Yes, it can also take on something apocalyptic – being so overwhelmed by small-scale structures which when zoomed into the microcosmic become huge. In their singularity they are individual and become strong as identities. It takes on something which is breathing as well as scary. One can no longer keep a distance and starts to fall into it. At least in the film where you animated it and one can’t but stare into it. When you mention “distribution”, are you also referring to something like traffic and communication?

TB: Yes.

KA: Those were topics already nearing on the apocalyptic. With today’s new computer generated films when you load a person with pixels which themselves lead a life of their own, then that too takes on a pulsating, breathing quality. So, on the one hand you have this incredibly dominant mega form while on the other it is completely permeated and pulsates through these pores which take on a life of their own and yet are still somehow part of the whole or charge the whole. That also creates frictions.

TB: Actually, the whole itself has grown into a kind of living being because it’s now a point or an entire film. That’s also to do with the fact that it is actually made up of cells; like the cells in a body. I regarded motorway corridors already as cells, like large traffic cells which can be deployed just about anywhere – like metastases – or link together. What’s more, my body is made up of billions of cells and I can reproduce myself. They are living beings. If thousands of people are screaming in my head, then it’s actually the cells there raising their voices and of course also the images I have of them, just like this Chinese image. This huge body I depict as a country is made up of tiny cells. On an intellectual or emotional level I transfer that to any magnitude. It’s not reduced to just one level of meaning but I can clearly see that in this hand alone there are so many billions of living beings which now can be shown macro.

KA: You have an almost animistic relationship with machines and technology. You always experimented with technology even when the techniques were hand-made. In the beginning your work was technical handicraft even when it was generated with video or graphic computers. Yet technically it becomes something machine-like, something jerky which seems to translate itself through joints. That implies a lot from the machine world.

TB: We obviously live in a machine world. For me everything is actually one gigantic programme. The way we speak of computer programmes today, this entire life is but one enormous programme. Within these programmes there are sub-programmes and machines controlling these programmes, conducting them to one another or keeping them apart. In any case, these rings are interlocking programme rings. I never tried to over-emphasise technology. I always stuck with the most essential. I don’t care for a technological fetishism, but in order to do the things I wanted to do I had no other option. I started to work with computers at a fairly late stage and initially used everything preceding them. It’s only when I can no longer express a dimension without them I turn to machines. All of this is now also part of the current of digital and analogue and has entered an inseparable and never ending continuum of machines. It concerns us all. Just like the cars everyone drives which for decades caught my interest as well, it is now the computer. The computer is turning into the same thing as the car. Everyone will drive in a computer. I mean, already everyone is attached to them, they’re within and around them. It’s becoming a kind of nature.   

KA: Your work always includes some strange kind of alchymistical, mythological level without having any narrative epos built into it. Simply through the fact that this machine world is pulsating and throbbing.

TB: Yes. I mean, the machine has this intrinsic “loop”. It keeps repeating tiny rotations or tiny loops. That’s just how it works. For me everything that’s happening is a “loop”, a daily motion, a yearly motion. And yet it’s tiny. The things going on in companies, in society, are constantly repeating themselves. Substantially and on the part of the machines, the paths meet. That’s why I institutionalised it. With the idea in mind that all goods that are being moved around and tipped into containers represent large forms. In the films it’s the containers into which something is tipped, tipped from there into something else and tipped again. That’s what a society is made of, this incessant tipping, this transfer from one to the other and back from the other to the one and so on. That’s basically the engine behind it all.

KA: You once described a cathedral as an engine.

TB: Yes, it’s a Western invention. The machine was invented in the West, in England. Worringer suggested that and he inspired me the most – with his ideas and with what he said about the Gothic period. In the Gothic period the first machines – these cathedrals – were no longer built by the mason’s guild but assembled from ready-mades produced in different parts of France. They were assembled there just like in a car factory. And if I’m honest, I can see it in these structures. When I look at the Cathedral in Reims it looks like the eyes of diesel engines, like the pistons of diesel engines, 16 cylinders put on top of each other. I think this story is engrained in us, it’s in our bodies and we can’t change it. What matters now is to work with this nature, with this history which after all is a thousand years old.

KA: How do you feel about having your latest book produced in China – or rather that you were asked by China to have it made there? Do they recognise themselves in it? As in a caricature or in some sort of utopia?

TB: I also don’t know why they did that. I suppose because of Japan. But in any case it’s kind of revealing. But it’s also important because it shows that in the end neither the individual part nor the whole wins. It always remains in balance, the points have their life and the collective has its life and the whole thing has its life and therefore it must somehow be kept in balance. I suppose the Chinese recognise something very important in it. At least that’s what they told me. Also, they wanted to see as many variants of ideas as possible. And they found them in this book. It’s like an instruction manual how different things can be carried out or how you can re-wind this topic in ever-changing ways. In that sense the Chinese do recognise themselves in it.

KA: Now you’re referring to the social dimension, the capitalist utopia which for you was already finished in the seventies. Now we’re approaching the question of the individual and the social.

TB: No, I mean ...

KA: ….in that sense you’re better off in Japan?

TB: In some instances such as in philosophy and so on you can see a great development. In reality, however, what we’re seeing is that the old Marx may have to be taken out of the box again. There is clearly something wrong with only three media corporations left and only four car factories and with 80% of humanity about to be unemployed and becoming unproductive. The productive stems from the individual and it must still fit in with regard to the summary. I mean in the whole animal which emerges afterwards. But with everyone made redundant and sent to the dole office and with only ten percent knowing what’s going on, that’s unbelievably unproductive. I no longer see direct democratic processes the way they were seen in 1968. But one would expect that ten brains would think more than one. I know this is just another utopia but if they were all turned on instead of just put aside, the whole would not be as stuck as it appears now. And it’s not about showing off, like a lot of these scientists do. I think it’s about taking control of oneself. You have to know what it is you want in the first place. All this guesswork and fiddling about is just not my thing. You have to burn for it. We see things thrown or kneaded together which in science would never be put in the same basket. It would raise the hair on their necks if these things would be assembled.

KA: What’s striking about your books and your exhibitions is that you can use the things you did in the last thirty years as if they were present-day material. In your exhibitions you place it next to and on top of each other. In the book your ideas and chains of thought are based upon it in a way where the date of origin no longer matters. Yet, it never looks like a retrospective but like a current solution.

TB: That’s because many things only came in time. When I first started everyone talked about the “Blue Ants” in China, it was just a dull mass. I distinctly remember that. Everyone saw them only as a dull mass and as “Blue Ants” because they were all dressed in blue. We still have a lot to learn about what makes them tick. One thing, however, is perfectly clear: The model can’t be as dull and dumb as it seemed then. On the contrary, it is extremely refined and actually builds on this enormous variety and also on this real mass. We, of course only see the market in it. But another part is what is actually happening in all these brains, in all these bodies and in these billions of cells. As to that we can only guess. And we’ll be clueless if all we ever talk about is cells. Actually there is one big crystallisation taking place. Everything is crystallising. And some things are becoming solid instead of coming lose or starting to flow.

KA: You mean that in our case it’s crystallising to individual fates and they are finite.

TB: Yes.

KA: And that there, it’s collective fates that are somehow in motion swinging higher and higher.

TB: By all means. Absolutely. For me it doesn’t come as a surprise they’re swinging so high nor that they will go much higher still. We’ll just have to see what they will do with it.

(Frankfurt on the Main, June 1997)