Mr. Ingo Gunther is an artist who is famous for his journalistic oriented project. He visited Obihiro (located in Hokkaido, Japan) to give a lecture. He is one of the invited artists for ‘Tokachi international modern art festival Demeter‘.
This big event will be held from 13th July to 23rd September 2002 next year. The main site is Obihiro horse race track and it is a sight specific installation.

Exosphere Installation. Wolfsburg, 2000.

You are multi talented: you are a journalist, an author and an artist. What does ‘Art’ mean to you?

Art, of course, means everything, or different things to different people. When I started I had a different idea of arts and a different ambition in art. I tried to see how art can exist and function in-between other disciplines.

For instance, you have journalism, medicine, geography, or politics. Every field is clearly defined. You can study those fields in great detail. But in-between, there is really nothing much that connects the fields. If you want to work and improve any of those fields you would have to go through the process of their hierarchy – but in art it is different. There is no hierarchy. You don’t even start at A arrive at Z but you start almost anywhere and end up somewhere….. It’s not that clear. I saw an opportunity to be the interface between other disciplines. That would be an important role. That is where I saw a very useful position for art.

Another one is that art in a very strange way is making sense out of things. Sometimes if you have a disaster on one level, you might turn that into success. It’s almost like an adventure. If you succeed or not, that does not have anything to do with you really reaching your goal. You may reach something else but then you have to understand if it is useful or not. And it’s all about trying to apply what you have learned in that process.
Art in that sense creates an unconditional space. That has to do with the idea of artistic license or artistic freedom. It’s a great possibility – I think only art offers that. Other disciplines don’t really have that liberty.

You often use journalistic themes like environmental problems, politics, economics, military issues and so on, what made you to attempt to deal with these themes as art?

Sometimes I have the ambition to be a journalist. I see a real world problem not only as an aesthetic problem. It’s a real problem, which requires real-word solutions. So what is the journalist doing? The journalist investigates it and writes about it. Then ideally the process is that the public becomes aware of it. Politicians representing the public then would take some action.

That is the basic and simple idea, political prosses for progress … making things work. But for me, that process is sometimes a bit too long and it doesn’t always work. That’s kind of frustrating thing for me.
If I reported something, I want to find out; Why is that so? Why can’t it be different? What keeps us from changing this?

So when I was reporting about refugees, I found that it becomes ridiculous to just write about refugees because the story will be always the same: “Oh poor refugees”. Readers will understand “Ah refugees, that is a tough problem.” and they will shrug it off with a sort of ‘shoganei’ attitude – “next story, please.”
It leaves people with a kind of sad feeling. But that’s neither good for refugees nor the readers – it’s not good for anybody. This is a dead end of journalism. Morally it’s quite ok but practically it is useless. I decided that I should not write about the problem unless I have a very good understanding and can make some suggestions what can be done.
But that goes against the rules of journalism. So what I have to do is to create my own system. I try to for instance with using the globes as my format. I am using the globe format to understand the context and also to provide global background dimension and proportion to local, national or regional issues. It has become also an interface to understand the
totality of global reality intuitively and quickly.

And the other thing is to come up with some kind of solutions, maybe even playfully… I want people to be willing to entertain some ideas, to think about ideas without thinking “Oh my God, what a huge depressing problem.” I like the audience to get engaged in this issue without being put off and beyond voyeurism. The message in journalism is so often quite clear. When you read about war, the message is never ” Wow – War is great!”, you know. That’s not really the story. Nobody will write it. Nobody can write it. The story will always be how terrible war is. And that message is an old one. I question the necessity to repeat that over and over again. The story should rather be how we can prevent it and what lead to the disaster in the first place. That’s my idea of journalism, which is very much not journalism. Maybe too much activism … But it comes from journalism sometimes. That is where my motivation comes from.

I think ‘technology’ is a key word in your works. What do you think about the ‘Internet’. Does it play an important role for modern art? Is there any specific advantage or disadvantage?

I would say “technology” is probably not the key thing. It has just happened to be something accessible to everybody, and accessible to me. And I enjoy it as it extends my abilities to do things. Technology is just a sort of background it should not be a message. For many artists, however, the use of technology stands in the foreground and becomes a central part of the message. That’s something I am having nothing to do with. I don’t want to use the internet just in order to have made use of the internet.

Let’s say I use the Internet – so, does that make me an internet artist? I was considered a video artist many years ago when it was fashionable but keep in mind – when the video technology dies, you die with it. Don’t marry yourself a specific media technology. Technology is always defined by its abilities and also its inadequacies. When artists use technology, it is often used in an inappropriate way, non-conventional way. So, we are deconstructing technology. It is a different kind of use. We are exploiting inabilities, glitches, mistakes in the system.

The aesthetic qualities of video have been exploited by artists not because video delivers such a crisp image but because video has certain texture. Like when you’re moving the camera quickly, it gets blurred etc… the colors shift … That is actually the shortcoming of the system that is being exploited. It’s the difference between the media and the reality. The more difference, the worse for the media, and thus aesthetically more interesting.

Do you think the internet has an important role?

It’s difficult to say… It actually destroys many existing art economies. They invented a new technology. For an artist, a new media, you know, that’s exciting. But no new economic model came with the introduction of the Internet… not for artists and not for anybody else. It allows new expressions but you don’t know who the audience is yet. We don’t really know how to sell Internet or network based art yet.

Worldprocessor Installation. Tokyo, 1989.

Your great ‘world processor‘project, in which you visualized data from many surveys and made various globes. During that processor after you made the globes, have you ever been shocked by the data itself and the art work you made? Actually I got strong impacts from your globes, for example ‘Nuclear Explosions’.

Every time! There were 2000 nuclear explosions! I had no idea. I thought, you know, OK, there was Japan first then you have some testing in the United States and in Russia. I totally forgot that England has nuclear weapons as well. But where do they do their testing? Of course in Australia. They rented space in central Australia. Then the French, where do they do it? The Mururoa Atoll. Before that in the Sahara Desert in Algeria when it was their colony. It was totally shocking to me to see the globe littered with nuclear testing sites. That only happens to become clear once you map the statistics out visually.

So this is what it is about because when you read something in so much detail you never quite get the global context. My works are supposed to be background information or reference for the actual story … context and dimensions are important. I missed this aspect in most newspapers, magazine or in TV news stories. I always cover topics that somehow surprise me.

Is there anything which you bear in mind when you visualize the data?

Yes, of course, I try to bear in mind that it can be understood as easily, clearly as possible in a way it becomes obvious without too much explanation. I need some captions sometimes but I try to use that as little as possible.

You asked me ‘what’s the definition of art’ in your first question, I think, if art gets very complicated, it may or may not be art. – But I happen to think that it should be as simple as possible. It should say a lot with very little. Maybe that’s the source of the nature of art. In that sense art has something to do with economics. Economics of communication. One word saying everything. To me, that’s art. One bit of information at the right point… very elegantly.

About ‘Refugee Republic‘, why did you make a parody of Rolls Royce’s logo mark?

You may understand it as a parody. Maybe that’s OK but it was not intended as a parody. It is just a combination of two elements you don’t expect to see together normally. You think of refugees, you might think, hungry people, crowded four-wheel drive trucks, or something. And with Rolls Royce, you may think of something sophisticated, rich, luxurious – no refugees hundreds of miles from here…

Refugee Republic Installation. Tokyo, 1996.

So I wanted to bring that together, because our expectation, our image of refugees is kind of incorrect. I wanted to change that. I don’t want people to associate the same thing again… and I don’t want to repeat the same story again and again. Refugees, camps, hungry, dirty, and whatever. That’s not really the story. that’s the stereotype. I thought it was interesting to combine refugees with a luxury symbol… since, after all, most of the refugee nations became really successful by comparison… Australia, the US, Israel etc… well, anyway that was many many years ago. Initially I was just playing around with Photoshop software and a new computer that I just bought… it had just been released and I was excited to use it in some way. So that was my first “digital art work”.

In Japan, we also hear the news about Kosovo or Albania refugees on TV or news papers. But I feel we Japanese think that it was the story happened in very very far countries. Your installation of “Refugee Republic” was shown in Japan 1996, how was the audience’s reaction? Is there any differences from other countries like Europe, America?

Yeah, very different. Actually in Europe, especially when I show the project in Germany, some people think it is tasteless. Obviously they are stuck in an ideological dead-end and know nothing about real refugees. They think the best you can do for refugees is to express your pity. But these people are clueless – this is not what they need. They don’t even need canned food rations, or your old shoes. There are more constructive ways of dealing with it.

In America, there is a very different attitude. Americans understand that they are essentially a nation of refugees. There is a clear understanding that the solution cannot consist of blaming either the system nor in relegating the responsibility to a government agency. Commercial values have to be taken into consideration. I do not really have to explain my reasoning too much. Americans don’t seem to have a problem with a mercantile approach. They kind of pat me on the back…

In Japan, I found many people who surprised me, saying “Ah this is very interesting. I’m a refugee too.” I said “You look like a Japanese how can you be a refugee – we are in your home country here. What’s the story?” And they would respond, “Yeah but you know I am a refugee in this society. As an individual I’m a refugee from the society I can’t fit in and have to hide. I am in a sort of internal secret emigration.” That was a very surprising way of seeing yourself having this state of mind of being refugee, not being able to identify. So they think of it as a kind of social metaphor. To me that was very shocking and astonishing… I heard that several times.

Other people think this is just a way of expressing that “On the internet, everybody is refugee because we are crossing borders”. That’s a really big misunderstanding. This is not about people crossing borders by using the internet and then finding themselves looking at the Russian web sites which they cannot read. So they see a symbolism in the project which only art critics are hoping for… or people who just don’t get it that something that started in the realm of art may also be aimed at the real world… That is just so ridiculous.

I suppose this project keeps growing and progressing. Is the project going exactly to where you aimed? And what is your goal with this project?

My first goal was to make refugees more popular in a good way and to encourage people to look at refugees in more detail. And not just with pity. I also wanted to encourage refugees to think about what they are.

Look at refugees beyond the obvious tragedy and maybe you see a way to make the experiences and even the tragedy work for you. Refugees need a lot of encouragement. A lot of refugees have a kind of broken spirit. That needs to be addressed and fixed if possible so they can act again. If there is something I’ve learned from visiting refugee camps, it is their biggest problem was their “broken spirit” and boredom. You’ll be surprised, it’s not that the people don’t have enough to eat. It’s not that they are ill and sick. Normally after a very short time, these concerns have been addressed by the Red Cross or UNHCR, and many other organizations which all do an excellent job at taking care of the initial issues of hunger and providing shelter.

But then the question is what to do next. That is a big problem. The refugees end up being stuck in the camps… and they become disconnected form their culture and they can no longer do business either. On average they spend 5 years in a camp. That is the issue that nobody quite thinks about and feels responsible for.

Initially I did not think about connecting the internet and this project. Then over the years, I realized maybe there is potential for refugees to learn about other refugees. If you really use the internet to connect refugees with each other, maybe there is a way of an organization which goes beyond territory. Maybe it can really happen giving the technological progress.

All this internet technology is useful for you and me but we already, I mean, we have a lot of things and ways to communicate and travel etc. But refugees are very limited in every way. They are limited where they live, they cannot travel , they cannot communicate with people outside and so on. So these technologies can really make a difference in their lives. In terms of communications, in terms of being in touch with other people, in terms of learning. Refugees suffer most from all kinds of borders – and they would benefit most from the borderlessness of the internet.

Can you tell me about your recent works for Volkswagen?

Exosphere/Globefield‘ was completed and installed in May 2000. It was an exiting and extremely exhausting project for me because I dealt with a commercial client – not a museum. I needed a vacation after that one – and never got it… Luckily the work there is permanent and you will be able to see it there for a long time. Actually – riding a train to Berlin you can see the big sculpture from the train. Looks especially cool at night.

I ask you about this event Demeter. How was the impression of Obihiro, Tokachi area?

It’s been a “natsukashi” experience because of the strange similarities to the area where I was born. There are many things from the taste of sausages to the view of the landscape. So many things are so similar that I’m in kind of a strange dream. It’s a bit surprising.

After you visiting the horse race track where the Demeter event will be held, did you get inspiration or ideas what to make?

Oh, yes ideas, but it’s still a secret because I have to work on that. Otherwise if I tell what I’m thinking, dreaming, hoping and then I’m doing something completely different, I will create disappointment. After all we have a very limited budget. This is critical as we are creating all new site-specific works. So far, my fantasy is unlimited but the budget is limited.

Is that going to be completely different from your past works?

Yes and No. Of course it might be quite different but… well, sometimes you walk and sometimes you jump, so maybe I try to jump. We’ll see…

There are many existing buildings like stables. Are you going to use them?

There is one building, which is not a stable, that I liked in particular. I think I’m going to use it, but then, I sometimes have this idea doing something very new and specific and then I realize “Oh, the technology I need is not that easy available, maybe not small enough to really work with … there are always some kind of limitations. I would like to use thus building or some of the stables for sure. But a huge problem is the stench. We have to figure out how to override that horse shit smell.

What will be the most interesting and attractive thing in this invent Demeter for you and the visitors?

I’m not quite sure yet. What is attractive anyway is that this is a very rural and raw area and for any artist who comes to the site it will have some impact. There is already something there. And the site is too seductive so that we fall in love with it. This is not a normal site for an art exhibition. So I am excited. I am tempted to say: “This is great. Let’s just leave it the way it is! Fantastic!”, you know. That would be the biggest danger but I am, of course, impressed by that site and everything. So it could be the most attractive to do nothing to it – to just leave it. But we have to overcome this initial instinct.
For the audience, I think it is the biggest challenge to get from one place to the other because it’s so damned large an area. And it will be pretty hot in the summer.

This is the last question. Many artists are invited to Demeter. Is there possibility that you and other artists collaborate?

Several other artists I know, at least I know their works and I think collaboration is always a possibility. But it will be difficult in this case because you have to be on the site together. Unless you have prior experience of collaboration, it’s very hard to do it. Some artists comes from Europe others from Asia and I’m based in United States and the site is in Japan, to organize a collaboration will be no easy thing.

Also I think most artists like to retain control. That’s the one thing which is also in the nature of art that you have the myth of the artist being the creator. I don’t believe in that very much but still I behave like that. You may or may not do the work totally by yourself – but you do have 100% responsibility, so you can’t really have other people share the responsibility or have them change what you present as your work. There is this exclusive idea of responsibility you have as the author of the work.

Well, thank you very much. We are looking forward to see your work at this event. Good luck!


Ingo Gunther

Date: 13th July – 23rd September 2002

Text: Eriko Nakagawa

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