13 questions for Marko Schiefelbein by Clemens Wilhelm
Over the last years you have developed a group of videos that play with the language of advertisement. They have titles such as: „LIFE BEGINS HERE“, „I CAN. YOU CAN.“, „FREEDOM TO MOVE“ or „IMAGINATION IS EVERYTHING“. Where do you think your fascination with advertisement comes from? Since you grew up in the 90s, did you watch a lot of television as a child?
Like many other artists I cannot say that there was a specific moment or turn that drew my interest to the theme of advertisement. That being said, I have to admit that I started to work for an advertisement and design agency at the age of 16. My boss there had a keen interest in slogans and aphorisms. I remember that I was once typesetting and printing hundreds of aphorisms on paper, so that they could get laminated and hung in a space that was called “gallery of aphorisms”. Come to think of it, this must have also been my first gallery visit and opening in my life. Anyway, I first wanted to become a photographer, so I worked as an assistant for a commercial still-life photographer before I went to study art. Sure, I watched a lot of crap on television in the 90s, so I got automatically spoiled by commercials. I guess that is all part of the mix.
In these videos, your actors often have a far away and hypnotized look in their eyes. They stare at the camera or at something off-screen. They appear to be driven by an outside force that has brainwashed them. At first, they seem to recall a personal experience: it could be a dream or a real traumatic experience. As a viewer, you watch and wait, and you try to make sense of the fragments. However, after a while it becomes clear that the actors are retelling the plot of an advertisement clip or are reciting a collage of slogans. Are advertisements showing our dreams? Or have our dreams become advertisements?
The imagery that is used in advertisement scoops from the pool of our collective memory. You can find many of these images or symbols in fairy tales, narrations or movies. This makes it easier for the advertisers to connect with us on an emotional level as we are already accustomed to these images. We have reached a certain level of comfort and trust. In „IMAGINATION IS EVERYTHING“ the protagonist runs on water with her Adidas shoes and in „FREEDOM TO MOVE“ we meet a guy who jumps through walls. Images we know very well.
„I CAN. YOU CAN.“ has a strange confusing quality: it is seductively attractive and disturbingly repelling at the same time. The young woman‘s monologue gets to you emotionally but it also repels you once you see through the shallow emptiness of the words. It leaves you with an uncanny feeling of uncertainty: Do we need to be protected from what we want? Do we want what we want? Are our desires still our own?
I think it is not a question of what we want, but who we want to be. Advertisement often tries to widen the gap between the selves and the ideal selves. On billboards and in commercials we see „perfect“ people all day long. They always remind us how inferior and incomplete we are. The more inferior we feel, the more we want to be one of „them“. We do not want to be nobodies, we want to be somebodies who are as perfect as „they“ are and who are worthy to be looked at.
To achieve this, we start buying products which promise us to attain this goal, and the harder we try, the further away it seems to be. Down this road we rush into an economy of alienation and compulsive consumerism.
All of these videos are dominated by absence. All of them show an individual alone in a room. There is this longing for an other or a better self in all of them. In settings of existential isolation, your actors recite soliloquys, which could be interior monologues or voices in their heads. But it seems that these voices in their heads are not their own anymore, that these voices have been replaced by the advertisement slogans of global corporations. Have they finally colonized our brains? Have they isolated us to control us?
I can only hope that the characters in my works are purely fictional. They are driven by an external force and desperately try to regain their own identity. In which way and to what extent every one of us is affected by this attempt to control the consumer‘s mind is a question that I hope to raise in the viewer‘s mind.
This secludedness is a keystone of our consumer society. The sociologist and philosopher Zygmunt Bauman thinks that in a consumer society the group gets replaced by a swarm. There are no social bonds in a swarm. Everyone is completely on his own and mechanically moves in the direction of the swarm. A swarm constantly changes its configuration, it can dissolve and evolve at any time. None of the members is bothered if another one gets lost.
The general feeling I get from watching these videos is quite dark, dystopian and pessimistic. But this may be a quite accurate depiction of the capitalist reality. Would you agree that your work portrays a corporate-ruled world full of hedonistic individualists seeking egocentric pleasures?
Well, I beg to differ. To me, the works are mostly about finding yourself and finding recognition, which I am sure is not a bad thing. There are external forces which want us to be hedonistic, which is part of the idea of unlimited economic growth.
We all know why advertisements use this kind of emotionally and psychologocially manipulative language. Usually, advertisement borrows or steals from artists. Are you reverting this process? What made you want to use this language as an artist? Are you quoting the slogans or do you hijack them to express something else?
I am unwillingly exposed to these messages in my daily life. All these slogans, images and ideals were copied into my identity. So I would not say that I am reverting or hijacking them. I am processing them and I am trying to find a way through all this confusion.
You use monologues and actors, and you also borrow this method from Ancient Greek theater: an actor directly adresses the audience and reports what has happened elsewhere, so the action does not have to happen on stage. Do you have an interest in theater? Do you see an overlap between video art and theater?
Maybe it is more an interest in performative elements than in theater. Especially when you work with actors/actresses, it is important to let them make decisions and enable them to create their own character within the framework of your concept. The whole monologue in my work „MUSTANG JEANS“ for example was created by the actress. We met only once, watched the original clip together and talked loosely about the concept for about an hour.
Judging from the experience of several screenings of the work, many people seem to have a hard time watching „I CAN. YOU CAN.“. Other people respond enthusiasticly. A seven minute video without cuts or camera moves of just one actress talking seems to touch the limit of watchability. This formal choice pushes the audience to a limit. Are you happy with this division of the audience into these two camps?
Basically, there is not much happening on the visual level, since it is just a woman sitting on a couch. This leads to a concentration on the audio which is a conglomerate of extremely compressed aphorisms. In a commercial, each of these usually appears and disappears within seconds. We are not able to process them consciously, but they stay with us subconsciously. Putting them into a monologue and staging them in front of you makes it impossible to escape them. Something that is meant to talk to your unconscious is now talking to your consciousness. You can feel that the protagonist is somehow obsessed by an external force. She is commodified by this force and wants to copy herself into your identity. This may be unbearable for some people. Others watch it twice or more in a row. I am glad to see people responding both ways.
It seems that you boil down a lot of complex ingredients to a seemingly simple form. How is your work process? How do you start to develop a video?
The works I did in 2012 and 2013 have their roots in the same material. A wealth of commercials that I had gathered over a couple of weeks. In the beginning, I focussed on the text-layer and transcribed all spoken or written texts. The result was a 40-page document which was the basis for the monologues of „I CAN. YOU CAN.“ and „YOU CAN. YOU CAN.“
The look of each actor seems to be carefully picked for each role. How do you choose your actors? How many takes do you usually record for the one-shot-videos?
After a script or an idea has reached a certain point, I start to search for actors or actresses and contact them directly or through their agencies. There are key moments when you know that you made the right choice. When I first met Stella („I CAN. YOU CAN.“), I was not sure if I could put the burden on her to learn the whole monologue by heart. With keenness she instantly affirmed the idea. This was the moment when I knew that she was the right one. Since there is not much money involved, you have to have faith that he or she might be the right one for the job if you sense that an actor or actress is challenged by your ideas. I can not tell you exactly how many takes I record. I usually end up with about seven good takes to choose from.
You shoot your videos in 4K, the highest image resolution available at the moment. Are your productions trying to match the high technical standards of advertisement clips? How important is the technology for your work?
I doubt that advertisement clips are mostly shot in 4K since this format has not found many supporters in the past. However, more and more people are now considering to shoot in higher resolution for various reasons. 4K is just one of many great features of a certain camera type I use. Another one is shooting in RAW, which guarantees a lot of freedom during the post-production. Video artists on small budgets often suffer from a lack of knowledge, and they have to fulfill many different jobs on the set. Working with flexible file formats comes in very handy in this case.
You work exclusively in video. In short, what are the advantages and disadvantages of being a video artist?
Video is a time based medium which gives you the freedom to extensively elaborate in a medium that most people are familiar with. But at the same time it drives you nuts to master the technique.
What was the biggest lesson in art school? What was the biggest lesson after art school?
In both cases: There are so many bad artworks out there, why should there not be a place for mine?
Interview: Clemens Wilhelm, April 2014
Marko Schiefelbein is a German artist living and working in Berlin. He studied Art History and graduated in Fine Arts in 2011 at the Braunschweig University of Arts. He was awarded the Master Student Degree during his postgraduate studies. His works are shown in various exhibitions and video art festivals internationally, such as Rencontres Internationales Palais de Tokyo, International Media Art Biennale Wroclaw, LOOP Festival Barcelona, MICROWAVE New Media Art Festival Hong Kong, Kasseler Dokumentarfilm- und Videofest and New Media Art Festival Seoul.