Mark Soo :
‘The object of observation changes by being observed’
Multimedia artist Mark Soo tells A Will Brown about his interest in the interconnection of elements, how a work of art changes when a passerby looks at it, and how Detroit techno music led him to 19th-century paddlewheel steamships
Published 19/08/2014, Studio International. <link to article online>
By A. Will Brown
The artist Mark Soo, who was born in Singapore and lived in Vancouver until 2011, is now based in Berlin. In the past few years he has made work in various forms – video, film, installation and photography – that engage social systems and patterns, juxtaposing motifs such as Detroit techno music and 19th-century paddlewheel boats to highlight a complex and evolving present tense, one located between objects, people, places and ideas.
I initially met Soo in 2012, during a visit to the Kadist Art Foundation in San Francisco. We plotted, shot and later edited an experimental video interview that took place in a few locations around the city. Recently, I talked to him about what he had coming up, how his working methods are evolving, and what is at the heart of his work.
A Will Brown: Like many artists, you are always working on numerous projects. What are you up to now in the studio, and what new areas or forms are you working in?
Mark Soo: In past projects, I wanted to make works that pushed the viewer to reconsider the chains of association between a "text" and its experience (by text, I loosely mean any subject made possible by an artwork). For me, this is where the idea of the present tense is located, somewhere between representation and embodiment, object and situation.
In the studio, I’ve been interested in accelerating these ideas in terms of the possibility of creating new present tenses, new resonant frequencies and codes of behaviour that emerge from the complex interactions between civil, natural and material systems. I’ve been thinking of artworks as inventories of variables in interaction, and a lot of the things happening in the studio become closer to a kind of management and choreography of these elements. The interaction of a large number of simple things over unpredictable timescales then becomes very difficult to anticipate. The complexity isn’t in the individual parts, but in the patterns they generate through their interconnection. How can you give this interconnection a form and a feeling?
AWB: What are the most compelling ideas for you today? What kind of things, places, people or juxtapositions do you find yourself drawn to?
MS: This is a question I find tough to answer, but it makes me think about what the conceptual artist Liam Gillick once said: “Contemporary art does not account for that which is taking place.” In retrospect, it seems like an obvious but necessary claim for opening up the conversation to richer and more variable patterns of interaction, both inside and outside contemporary art. It’s not any singular discourse or idea that I find compelling but, rather, what new groupings of ideas can arise from their juxtaposition. I find that it’s my experience of constellations of elements that are motivating, rather than knowledge, or places, or people per se.
AWB: I love the idea that contemporary art isn’t accounting for what is taking place. Is this an allusion to the idea that contemporary art accounts for new things, or that it manifests new ideas, relationships, or combinations? Is it the things that haven’t yet taken place? I think some artists would argue with you and Gillick and say that art must be about what is taking place and what has taken place?
MS: I wouldn’t disagree with you. Art is still the most incredible field of consent I can imagine, but I think what Gillick refers to is a rethinking of contemporary art itself as the site of an ageing and naturalised set of conventions, representative of what is a pretty narrow range of cultural production if you think about it on a larger human scale. Its status as an institution and an industry typically serves to reinforce existing values of art. It’s not to be taken necessarily as an apocalyptic endpoint though, but perhaps a generative foil, especially if we consider how future modes of creativity might reflect as-yet defined forms of living and being.
AWB: Can you elaborate a bit on your ideas about constellations? Perhaps there are areas where certain kinds of constellations emerge from or manifest themselves? Would you call a passerby interacting with your work an elongation or augmentation of the constellation or relationship or idea that you build from and with?
MS: Very rarely are my own interests driven by a singular point. By and large, I don’t know why something is initially fascinating to me or anyone else other than that it is simply available through lived experience. But I see recurring patterns in my interests. For example, I’m fascinated by the technological and social aspects of mass media – blinking lights and startup screens – and the way they alter the emotional and perceptual corners of my every day.
What I like is the notion that you encounter things by their orbit around other bodies, and by the way subsequent collisions of multiple orbits enable reorderings of energy and form. You pick up a lot of functions that don’t serve the utility of meaning, and this is important. As elongation suggests, stories are added to or scattered over time, giving rise to mutations that are further reshaped by personal experience. In this way, ideas and sources are never fixed to a single contour or intention, and it’s always by their exchange with something else that their significance is modified. So, definitely, by sheer presence and cultural baggage, I think the passerby contributes to the ongoing constellation of feelings, reactions and behaviours built up in any given work. Maybe another way to imagine this is to say that the object of observation changes by being observed.
AWB: Can you break one of your works down into its component parts to better explain how the elements form a coherent, yet always elliptical and open whole?
MS: I can describe some components, but not necessarily their expression, and this is what I alluded to earlier about the relationship between a text and the production of its experience. What I’m consistently drawn to are constellations of performance, place and politics, and questions about the recoding of history and subjectivity through technological form. In my film Several Circles (2010), for example, I would never have thought about 19th-century paddlewheel steamships if it weren’t for my interest in techno music from Detroit. Nor would I have thought about the displacement of labour in Michigan’s “Big Three” car factories if it weren’t for the iconic Japanese-made electronic drum machines that were used on pioneering techno records played on Detroit dancefloors, where a four-piece R&B band might have once stood. There is a narrative about the movement of bodies as much as there is the movement of machines. Strangely, they’re all subjects defined by a circular motif at their heart, whether it’s the loop-based structure of techno or the simple rotation of the car wheel. Any of these sober subjects could have been interesting on their own, of course, but, for me, it was their constellation that somehow formed a different kind of opening point.
AWB: Can you describe how moving from Vancouver to Berlin has affected your work?
MS: The move happened in a pretty organic way. I came for a year-long residency in 2011, but didn’t exactly plan on staying. I’ve just followed things as they’ve happened and tried to adapt. In terms of my work, any major change has the opportunity to open different ideas, and moving becomes an analogy for thinking about how to transition from one idea to the next.
As you can imagine, the discourses and contexts for art-making are unique to each city, and are representative of their own historical trajectories. One thing that has seemed interesting to me culturally about Berlin compared with Vancouver is their different take on modernity. It may seem abstract and generalised, but they seem to have more diffuse values in Berlin, than in the heavy consumer cultures of North America – less aspirational perhaps, or at least it seems possible in Berlin to hold values in a semi-suspended state. I think this has marked the possibilities of art produced here in subtle but important ways. Certainly my own.
AWB: What are the central concerns, or investigations, at the heart of your 2012 video work, Cuttings? Can you describe the work and the processes of making and conceptualising it?
MS: The piece depicts a series of short scenes in which salad vegetables are prepared and chopped up. Visually, the piece exists as a lurid mash of colours that was made by splitting the video image into its constituent parts of red, green and blue, and playing them back slightly unsynced. The editing used these very disruptive cuts and transitions too, and if you look closer, the vegetables are naturally red, green and blue. I was trying to find ways of relating the medium of video to the thing it depicted. I wanted to fold in the production with the consumption, but also generally let those connections set off their own chains of associations without being too burdensome about it.
AWB: I’d also love to hear about Koons on Ice [a work in progress] and Beast of Burden; Cat & Mouse; Horse & Buggy (2012). How does site specificity play out in your work and particularly in the latter?
MS: Context always functions as an integral part of my work; it’s a material that sets other materials in motion. The concept of site is especially interesting because we can understand it as one side of the binary of figure and ground, a hierarchy I have a strong mistrust of. Roger Caillois wrote about animal camouflage, a classic example of figure/ground reversal as a survival mechanism. More violently, Caillois also compared this to the condition of schizophrenia in human beings. He wrote: “To these dispossessed souls, space seems to be a devouring force … It ends by replacing them.”
In the case of Cat & Mouse, the work was a text piece conceived in relation to its location on the glass windows of an urban public transport station. The work played with common aphorisms rendered in lettering that referenced the surrounding signage. The texts were layered on top of each other two at a time, in a way that made it necessary to consider it in different directions, backwards and forwards, and from either side of the glass: Bridge & Tunnel crossed with Cat & Mouse; Beast of Burdenwith Bread & Butter and so on …Read in context, you might interpret the aphorisms as references to progress and consumption, desire and labour. The interesting operation for me was how the spatial arrangement of the text produced a new perceptual situation.
Koons on Ice (working title) is a much newer video installation. It takes as its central motif a transparent glass sculpture produced by Jeff Koons in the early 90s, depicting him having sex with his then wife. In this video work, I wanted to use the optical properties of this sculpture as a kind of camera lens to film through, to inflect the resulting refracted image with traces of his status and aura, and his production of fantasy. The thing is that the sculpture itself in the video will be produced as a photo-realistic, physically correct computer-generated image of a glass model, an emblem of technological fantasy in itself.
AWB: Can you explain some of the overlaps of working in film, video and photography, as well as some of the divergences that make certain subjects covered in your work only navigable through one particular medium?
MS: I am a media atheist at heart, I don’t believe in any one format. But at the same time it might be desirable to make them interchangeable: there are specific qualities and histories that define their representation of time and space. That’s why making the transition from one to the other, whether on an individual level or a broader social level, is almost always an extremely laborious one: you’re actually dealing with ecosystems. You can see these differences, which makes the decision about format a more conscious one, even as I tend to be far more interested in their contamination of one another.
In my work, I always try to create a strong connection between the medium and the subject it describes. Many past works have been built up by following certain chains of association, to the point where its material, its production and display, and its subject can’t exist independently. It becomes a metabolic relationship. What’s important to me is that it becomes very difficult to make distinctions between the story and the teller. To me, this speaks of the way boundaries between production and consumption, reader and writer, or fact and fiction dissolve.
AWB: Have you seen any exhibitions recently that caught your interest and eye – either new work by an artist or work you had not seen until recently?
MS: I’ve been revisiting Dogville (2003) by Lars von Trier. It is such an incredibly powerful work. He screws with the ideas of genre and storytelling on a psychological, formal and political level to create a composite visual form that is still hard to characterise. The animated works of artist Peter Wächtler, who uses stop motion animation to make comically compressed pieces about human existence at its most squeezed, are also strongly on my mind. Zhuangzi [the Chinese philosopher from the 4th century BC] said that reward and punishment are the lowest form of education, but I think these works prove the contrary.
I also can’t shake a performance work by Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster held in Berlin at a circus earlier this year – there were so many twists and turns; it covered such a huge range of expression. Also, the figurative sculptures of German artist Jana Euler, where she seems to contort bodies in such surprisingly alien yet evocative positions. And I mean alien.
And finally, a show I wished I had seen was the Sarah Lucas: Situation – Absolute Beach Man Rubble retrospective at Whitechapel Gallery, London.