Interview: How to Live

Melanie Zagrean & Pierre Wolter: During your residency stay at Art Claims Impulse in Berlin May-Jun 2008 you developed a work called How to Live. In this interview, we’d like to explore some ideas behind this piece, what inspired you to do it, why you chose Berlin as the setting. How to Live is a wonderfully gentle, minimal, quiet, yet strong piece, a forty minute video work, based on a series of performances, using subtle humour and understatement, yet touching on universal issues such as perception, sense and senselessness, time, search. Could you tell us a bit about the idea behind this piece, and what inspired you?

Dave Ball: My initial plan for the residency was to use the time to “stage” a series of actions – I’d envisaged some sort of daily practice of going out and doing something. Whereas in the past I’ve tended to present single actions in isolation, this time I wanted to interrogate what these actions were actually doing in relation to everything else. I wanted to not only look at the concept of humorous transgression or minor rule-breaking or whatever – but also to look at what these actions are actually transgressing from, or what rules they are actually breaking. And so the piece for that reason explores the background, or the “playing-field” a lot more than some of my previous work.

MZ & PW: What made you select this particular title? In a way it could be interpreted as a plea for slowing down the pace, for taking time, even “wasting” time even… What was the idea behind this choice?

DB: It soon became apparent that what I was doing here was trying to adopt a stance of naivety. I was trying to imagine approaching everything as if for the first time, as if I genuinely didn’t understand what the process of going for a coffee was all about, or that there’s no real obligation to dress according to the colour of trains going past, or even that people generally walk facing forwards. So the title “How to Live” can be interpreted as an instruction, but also, importantly, it offers a question. I’m interested in provoking the viewer into asking that question. “Why not?” “Why do I find all this activity absurd, or stupid, or boring, or interesting even?” It’s interesting that when we invited Sophie [Springer] to write her essay [Acts of Freedom, or How to Waste Time?] and she saw the work, she immediately picked up on this notion of “wasting time”. She saw straight away that I was presenting some sort of diversionary activity, or that I was demonstrating how to live in a way that’s simply less efficient than normal. I actually hadn’t quite articulated this to myself at the time – probably because I was so immersed in my “project” that everything I was doing did have a very specific and conscious motivation, and wasn’t wasting time at all. But of course now that the piece is finished I can completely agree.

MZ & PW: Looking at the visual images of the piece, the way they are shot, and the choice of setting, there are a few things that strike us, for instance, the cinematic, beautiful feel about them, and in particular the locations are interesting. Could you say a few words about how you came to select these particular settings and the visual language for them?

DB: My working process began with me simply walking around, exploring the city, fairly aimlessly, but always looking. And whenever I came across a site that provoked some sort of a response, or maybe fitted with an existing idea, I recorded it through drawings or photographs. Somehow I felt it was important even at that early stage to bring these somewhat abstract performative ideas into a visual realm. It’s always the visual integrity of the performance within the context of the site that interests me. I suppose also I was interested in giving the locations a sort of “stability”, visually – giving them space and time, that is, compositionally speaking.

MZ & PW: Could you say a few words about the idea of “minor rupture”, what it symbolises, and in particular, what inspired you to develop this concept.

DB: The notion of “minor rupture” was something I originally started using when I was writing about humour for my MA dissertation. I was interested in trying to come up with a way of figuring that exact point when something has made us laugh, when we somehow “lose control” for a split second. It’s the involuntary bit, the inarticulatable bit that creeps up on us. It’s as if our rationalism or even our ability to grasp hold of something momentarily vanishes. It always comes back of course, but just for that moment it disappears, or jumps away. There are lots of visual ways of trying to picture this, like a needle jumping off a record-player, or a train coming off its rails. Philosophically speaking I found this a fascinating way of approaching the “work” that humour does, but in terms of my own practice it really seemed to fit too. My work had always been about the everyday, it always dealt with mundanity, or “banality” – but it had also always been quite funny. And suddenly with “minor rupture” I had this notion that could talk about both normality and a-normality, and the slippage between the two.

MZ & PW: Looking at some of your earlier performance and video pieces, this piece is different in many ways. It is a longer piece and you’re using novel formal elements in that you interlace performances with parts in which you speak, in which you think and reflect addressing the viewer directly. In a way this creates “ruptures” in the piece which give it an interesting dynamic. This practice is used in literature, but is not necessarily common in video art. Could you say a few words about your decision to go for this kind of format?

DB: In some ways this was the risky element in the piece. That was the bit were I was letting go of some control of the work. Words, and especially words being spoken in such an improvised way, can be so loaded, and can have an incredibly distorting effect on a viewer’s reading of a piece. The danger here was always that I might say too much, that I might begin to over-determine the performative gestures, which are themselves so understated. Virtually anything I said that contained any analysis, or anything too strong, I had to edit out. And so what you’re left with are these “interludes” that never quite say anything, but somehow I think “open-out” the staged-performance bits, and hopefully give them some sort of richness. But also, of course, I worried about making the work too much about myself, about me and about my residency, which I think would be too distracting.

MZ & PW: What particular aspects made you choose Berlin as the setting to this piece?

DB: Everyone always talked about the “space” that Berlin gave you, compared with somewhere like London, and that really appealed to me. With a project like this, which is very meditative, and very much about reflecting upon living, I think it needed space to breathe. Berlin still seems somehow an “unfinished” city to me, full of wasteland and underdevelopment, and lacking the sheen of London. Maybe I was attracted by a sense of the city itself trying to find out “how to live”, and so felt a connection there. Also of course it’s simply a great place to be, and the sun shone almost every day I was here!

MZ & PW: In earlier conversations, you mentioned that you’re already working on new ideas for future art work. It would be interesting for us to find out what themes you are planning to work on in the future. And, how will your work, your style for instance, evolve from here?

DB: I’ve really been thinking a lot recently about the possibility of taking myself out of the picture as performer in future works. Getting someone else to do these ridiculous activities and investigating the impact that being able to think “through” someone else’s actions might have. How to Live feels like it’s brought to a conclusion a lot of the ideas I’ve been exploring – this whole reflection on “minor rupture” has found some real form here I think, and that’s exciting. An immediate plan is to pick out some of the individual performances in the work and expand them. For instance the Tempelhof model aeroplane part begins to reflect upon the building, the space, the architecture itself of the airport, its history even. And this is something that I really enjoyed and found very interesting. Ways of inhabiting particular places, maybe with a more developed emphasis on the place itself, specifically – that’s something I’d like to explore. Immediately though I am currently heavily involved in curating an exhibition in Sheffield also exploring the notion of “minor rupture”. That’s been a really exciting project – looking at other artists’ practices which deal with similar ideas, but from completely different angles.

Melanie Zagrean and Pierre Wolter are gallerists from the specialist video and performance space Galerie Art Claims Impulse in Berlin.

Originally published in exhibition catalogue Dave Ball: How to Live, to accompany a solo exhibition and residency at Galerie Art Claims Impulse, Berlin in 2008.