An Interview with Aleks Slota: Language is a Shell Game

by RM Vaughan on June 9, 2017 Interview


Years ago, if you read Derrida, Lacan and their fellow travelers and then came to the conclusion that language is inherently unreliable, you were considered at best pretentious and at worst mentally ill. Here, for instance, is Lacan on one of the various, maddeningly indirect ways in which words acquire meaning, or a lack thereof: “… insofar as it forms part of language, the signifier is a sign which refers to another sign, which is as such structured to signify the absence of another sign …”. Um, yeah, exactly. Language is a shell game.

Now, in the post-truth era, all that giddy philosophizing (presented in a style as nutty as the ideas it proffered)  suddenly rings true. Hell, it clangs. The relationship between words and their assigned meaning(s), never all that comfortable in the first place, now strikes us as illusory, if not deceitful. You can’t trust your own reading glasses.

Multimedia artist Aleks Slota’s latest works ask a further question: if all of the above is true, how can you trust an artist?

A Berlin-based Polish-American, Slota has built a career out of being, in the larger and best sense of the modifier (signifier?) an irritant, or “irritainer” as the Canadian artist Andrew Harwood coined; an artist who puts his audience’s his own comfort aside in pursuit of new, less easy revelations. His performances typically involve acts of endurance, for both artist and witness, and no end of noise.

But in his latest projects are markedly more pensive. We met for a chat at Berlin’s Ex Girlfriend Gallery on the final day of his understated exhibition of text works It Happened Here. And a few weeks before our get together, Slota presented Meat Puppet at the Berlin literary centre Lettretage – a concise performance wherein he attempted to verbalize into sense a word salad derived from President Trump’s barking. Better him than us.

Slota’s new works acknowledge the simple fact that we are all part of the now-heightened language/meaning problem, because unless you’re a hermit you too are contributing to the constant cross-talk and, by extension, the reduction of words to mere noise. There is no getting away from the collapse of the familiar formula of words = distinct (or at least agreed upon) meaning. We burned that barn down. Nor is it useful to simply blame this slippery slope on Trump and his imitators and not acknowledge our own complicity. Slota wants us, instead, to own the chaos.

RM Vaughan: It Happened Here appears fairly straightforward: you spent time in the gallery, performed various actions, and then documented the actions and where you did each with large sheets of text and X’s on the floors. Many of the descriptions are quite funny, and the project appears deceptively simple, but what else is going on here?

Aleks Slota: The show is called It Happened Here, and the performances were made for no audiences, so the only documentation is what I provided. I even blacked out the windows so nobody could see what I was doing. What you read on the printed posters are my own recollections, taken from notes I made immediately after the actions. Of course, I reworked them a bit and edited the texts. Because I only had a week to do the whole show, performances and printing, everything was done very quickly.

And we have to decide if you are telling the truth?

I come from photography, and I document a lot of other people’s performances. So, I understand really clearly that photography can’t be trusted. So, for me, language is in the same bag. Anything can be manipulated. But people still think photographs are some kind of proof, some sort of reality. I don’t know why. I think people want an anchor, of reality, of facts. They want this in photographs and in text. But even in “documentary” photography there is manipulation. This question of validity and trustworthiness is to me finished, for any media. The question of what is documentary, what is representation, is long over. I want the performances in It Happened Here to live first in people’s imaginations. It makes the viewer have to work harder, but that is more rewarding because you create your own image of what I did, or write that I did.

What we imagine then becomes all that we can trust. Which seems like completing the circle.

Yes. Doing this, when I think about the larger implications, does not frighten me. I am at peace with this dilemma because of my understanding of image manipulation. But today all of these questions seem much more urgent, because these questions are now in the spheres of real power. We want to still believe the US is the world leader, but we have a president who is using this understanding of language’s unreliability to his own advantage. The concerns about language and expression, representation many of us have had for decades. It’s not theoretical, it is not just in our entertainment culture anymore. Putin is a good example of this: he always says at least two things at once and says everything is “true” when it suits him.

Doing work about mass lying (if that is not now an outdated verb) is particularly resonant in Germany.

Yes, because the reactions of the audience showed me that when they saw Meat Puppet they had deeper references than Donald Trump in their heads. They saw how the pattern has played out over their own history. German audiences recognize where Trump’s strategies come from. For sure, to me the absurdity is that I can never be as absurd as the people in power. I am employing their techniques, but I have no power to back up my actions. I’m on the low end of the spectrum of the problem. I am adding to the uncertainty, but I don’t see an alternative to how I can engage with this topic of (language). But I also want people to laugh! Plus the context is very specific: when I do performances outside of the comfort of the art world, I worry about how to relate these complex concerns to a more direct kind of public. When your work is not contextualized by the “art space”, even more interpretations are possible. I notice that when I do public performances people think I am insane.   Or because they don’t have an understanding framed for them by a gallery or a stage, they get really annoyed. Even violent. The lack of an easy context can be really threatening for people now.

Much of your previous work has been about sound, noise, and sensations. How does that inform what you are doing now?

The sound art that I make comes from punk aesthetic. But I was feeling squeezed by that aesthetic, even though I still do sound art and will make more. I felt constricted by the way anger and pain are presented in the punk/metal style and wanted to try to express that same set of feelings in new ways. The text works I am arranging the anger in a cleaner way. The sentences are shorter, the descriptions use simple language and are concise. It does not look on the paper like a punk text, like a chaotic text, and I think it is more understandable that way. Aggressive sound art, the noise art world, is only now getting to the galleries in Berlin, it has always been an outsider thing. I guess I wanted to find a middle ground and reach new people. The connection between the sound/noise art and the text works is that I have learned not to be afraid of the audience’s reactions. But with text works, I am trying to be more of an editor.

Given all the factors at play, how can you tell anymore if a performance or show is successful?

In this case, some people have told me that they felt uncomfortable reading the posters, because I talk about my body, masturbation, feeling sick, etc. And for me discomfort is a good thing, for all of us, because you have to consider what causes the discomfort. Discomfort leads to questions. The worst thing is when people tell me that they agree with me.

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