Issue 3: Höller At Me

Issue 3: Höller At Me

Written by Sarah McCrory
Photography by John Scarisbrick

While being an internationally recognised and celebrated artist for many years, it was in 2008 that Carsten Höller became part of London’s collective consciousness with his ‘art meets nightclub meets ethical charity project, 'The Double Club'.

Of course that’s not to overlook his other notable achievements (in particular his 2006 exhibition ‘Test Site’ at London’s Tate Modern), but his work with Fondazione Prada on TDC offered up art to (an often unknowing) mix of Congolese, club kids, celebrities and of course, the obligatory art crowd. For eight months, it was the talk of the town and has since been indoctrinated into clubland folklore. Fresh from his survey show at the New Museum in New York, Frieze Art Fair curator Sarah McCrory caught up with the ever charming Mr. Höller…

Sarah McCrory: So Carsten, you know Ponystep because Richard organised the ‘Western’ side of the music for your Double Club project you made in London in 2008 with the Prada Foundation. When did you first have the idea for the club?

Carsten Höller: It’s very hard to say how the idea came about. I’ve always liked the idea of combining two things that are basically incompatible. I was going to see Miuccia Prada, and she asked me if I could propose a project. I thought this Congolese – Western club would be a very good idea. I thought she would just say no to it because it was a very ambitious project. It became a restaurant and a bar as well as a club, and was just something that developed, very quickly actually. Jan Kennedy, who works for Prada as a consultant and producer, and made the Pharmacy with Damien Hirst, really pulled it off. He presented Mourad Mazouz of Momo and Sketch to operate as a partner with Richard Mortimer. And then we had Congolese partners to work on the Congolese side. It was an amazing experience.

I think there were lots of people who ended up spending nights in the Double Club who didn’t know that it had stemmed from an art project, or from an artist.

I really like that. I think that’s a good art project in a sense. It becomes dirty. It’s not presented in a clean white space like a museum, where you say, ‘this is art and I have to look at it as if it’s art’. I wanted it to be something that could be appreciated on very different levels. If you wanted to have a beer it was a perfect place, but if you wanted to see it as an art installation it was also a perfect place. It was really about creating a space that produces a specific experience, which is of course very different depending on who you are, what background you come from, how old you are, which gender you are, the different things that make you up.

Quite often in your work the way you employ the audience is interesting, but when you create a project as a bar, or something that is live, would you say you lose control of them as soon as it opens? 

I thought it was pretty controlled, don’t you think? It was super controlled! I was sort of paying attention so everything Congolese stayed on the Congolese side and the other way round. I think its very interesting when you talk to someone and you see a background behind them which is Western, and the person who is talking to you is seeing Congolese, what kind of discussion is that creating? It’s also about being art and non-art like many other things. The only thing I’m kind of insisting on is that you have to be physically present. It’s not something you can see on the net or that somebody can just explain to you. You have to take your body there and spend some time in it in order to get this very specific experience.

We opened in November 2008 and thought that maybe the association with Prada and my name would be enough to attract a significant amount of people from the art world and from the fashion world and some other people who were more into music, but this didn’t work out at all.

What was the most unexpected thing that happened at the Double Club, for you?

Probably the very strange dynamic that it had. I had no experience of making something like that at all, to open a club or a restaurant or bar, and certainly not the three of them at the same time. We opened in November 2008 and thought that maybe the association with Prada and my name would be enough to attract a significant amount of people from the art world and from the fashion world and some other people who were more into music, but this didn’t work out at all. That’s why it was so important that Richard and Mourad were part of the project because they brought their crowds. At the beginning it was completely dead. On New Years Eve I looked at the website and it didn’t even say that it was open on the 2nd of January, and I was angry about it, but then suddenly it was full of people. And that’s how it stayed. It just became some kind of hype. I think that’s quite a London thing. I wanted to have a very diverse audience not some kind of expert crowd or whatever.

Where did your interest in making a Congolese bar in particular come from? I’m talking to you and you’re in Ghana at the moment, aren’t you? You partly live there, is that correct?

Yes we have a house here near Cape Coast.

Where did the interest in making the Congolese element come from?

I think the music is great. Ghanaian music is not as great, although it is interesting. They have something called hiplife, which is not so bad at all. From my knowledge, and I think I have quite a good knowledge of African music, Congolese music is just the most extreme and different and very interesting. I wanted something that was different to Western music, so Congolese, which is so unique, was really a very good choice. Plus it comes coupled with the fact that ‘congo’ when you just say the word, is in 99% of cases, coupled with some very bad news. I thought that was interesting because I am actually very much against this idea of only speaking badly about a place because it obviously makes it even worse. How we speak about the country is certainly extremely damaging to them. We don’t understand that the problems in the Congo are mostly happening on the Eastern side of the country. Kinshasa is on the other side and is a completely different atmosphere.

There are a lot of musicians and bands, quite recently, who have been influenced by Congolese music – particularly a number of bands in London and New York.

It used to be virtually unknown to anybody, but I do think it’s changed a little bit. There are some groups that were successful. Did you hear of Staff Benda Bilili?

Yes, I know them.

They’re disabled. Which fits a Western stereotypical image of poor Africans. The poor Congolese, destroyed by years of war – that kind of thing. I really like them. I often like the most popular stuff in the Congo and that’s still something nobody really listens to, which may have something to do with the fact that the recordings are a bit too ‘plastic’ for our Western ears, we like it a bit more rough. The other band that became so famous, Konono No. 1, they’re using megaphones and amplifiers which is just based on traditional Congolese music from a part which is close to the border with Angola. To us it sounds underground in a way, but it’s just because they didn’t have other means of production.

One of the things I really wanted to ask you was, of all your works, what do you consider successful and which do you consider perhaps a failure of some kind?

Well some I think were a complete failure. You learn with time, so you learn how to avoid failures. I never went to art school so I made my mistakes in public. Some works I really like myself but they don’t seem to be liked by many other people, and then others I find almost too popular that I want to stop doing them because I’m suspicious when it becomes a too popular thing, like the slides. I had a show in New York at the New Museum that has closed now. It was extremely popular in terms of numbers of visitors and it was in the news, but I’m not sure what that means and if it should be something I should be happy about or not. I have my doubts to be honest.

So which work have you felt to be really successful but you’ve been disappointed with the reception?

There’s plenty. Though I’m never really satisfied with a work. There was one work in New York that I liked very much, called What is Love, Art, Money? It was just three telephones on the wall and they’re very inconspicuous, just cream-coloured plastic things, and then next to the telephone there’s an answering machine. Each of the phones is connected to a toll free number. I wrote a little text about art, one about money, and one more about love, and we approached people to call and leave a message about how they feel about it. If you were at the show, somebody would call live and speak about money, commenting on this text, but the callers didn’t know it was played in a museum and the museum visitors wouldn’t have known what the callers had read or what they were speaking about. Two worlds, which are incompatible because they don’t know each other, produce a common sense.

Is there a battle for you between a work like that which has an undefined outcome and is quite subtle versus your bigger, more spectacular works? For me it’s interesting because curating the projects at Frieze Art Fair I have a similar issue. I need to produce a programme where there’s balance between the spectacular and the intimate. 

I understand exactly the dilemma you must be going through.

It’s the most visually noisy kind of art experience – probably one of the most difficult art viewing experiences you can have. So trying to make something which comments on the context and appeals to different audiences is difficult. Do you look for that balance?

I look for the balance but I don’t think it works out so well. I have to find some other ways. I really think it all belongs together and it’s based on the idea that not one of them can give you fulfilment or can really bring you somewhere, but maybe together with all these different approaches you can somehow encircle something in the middle there which is ‘unsayable’. The works could be a way to catch it, in a literal way to encircle it. It can’t escape any more. It’s about pinning it down. But it’s certainly beyond language so it’s not really possible to speak about it in an interview!

I always wonder when an artist is very well known for their most popular work, If there is a parallel between that and being a successful band, like being Pulp and always being asked to do Common People. Is that something that concerns you? This comes back to a question about audience. I suppose the slides are your big hit, they’re incredible. Do you ever get tired of playing your big hit?

No. It would be a problem if they were meant to be produced once and then they were a hit but I think there should be as many as possible, so I’m happy to promote them. I think the problem really is more about yourself, if you have a big hit, as you call, it’s kind of tempting to stay with it and try to develop it further and then it could
become linear.

Maybe it’s good to finish by going to your beginning. You have a really interesting background. As you said earlier on, you didn’t study art. I did read somewhere earlier about the title of your PhD and it was, completely baffling.

You mean, ‘Efficiency Analysis of the Parasitoids and Hyperparasitoids of Cereal Aphids’.

Yes! How did that shift happen from your scientific background to making the first thing that you consider a work of art?

Well, I don’t know. It’s a process. It probably has to do with interests. It’s just another way to try to express your self, a tool to try to understand the world, but then there must be other ones. This cannot be it. That’s really the thing, I thought, ‘this cannot be it’. With art, I also think this cannot be it. I’m constantly looking for what it could be. But as yet, I haven’t found anything after art.

Photographic assistance Lars Brönseth

Post production K56 Studios

Thanks to James Perra Studio,

Matias at ProCenter, CameraLink