“The things we do are a bit ridiculous”

Speaking with Hannah Anbert on performing the contraptions of exhaustion culture during her current exhibition ‘Slower and Cheaper’ at Overgaden Institut for Samtidskunst in Copenhagen.

Published: July 2, 2018
Words: Macon Holt
Photos: Anders Sune Berg
Artist Link: hannahanbert.dk
Gallery: overgaden.org
Exhibition Details: Present - August 15

Hannah Anbert’s artworks stretch and deform the objects and rituals of working life revealing the cracks in our values and sense of worth.

Whether it’s through putting on a Career Cabaret or building a new Danish history from a fabricated archeological discovery, Anbert seeks to shake what we consider normal but with laughter if possible. With a background in scenography, Anbert plays with the pageantry of modern work culture and illustrates the surreal logic we accept to get through the day. In her latest exhibition at Overgaden, Slower and Cheaper, Anbert takes aim at the imperatives of speed and efficiency, which seem to make sense on the surface but that eat away at our insides. As heavy as this may seem, it is important to remember that her methods are cut through with wit and buckets of chewing gum.

Anbert graduated from the Royal Danish Academy of Art in 2016, winning both the StartPoint Prize and the EXTRACT—Young Art Prize that same year. Her work has been exhibited in Berlin, Prague and across Scandinavia. You can even find the backing tracks to her satirical karaoke songs on YouTube. In addition to this, Anbert is engaged in a variety of education initiatives that explore the intersection between art and politics.

Anbert’s work operates on a multiplicity of levels. On the surface, she makes arresting absurd objects that command the attention of a viewer. Often these objects are interacted with by performers, who struggle valiantly to use them for their ostensible purposes, while their design reveals that, for the system that made these things, the human component is little more than a necessary evil. Through this, her work poses questions about the world we have built for ourselves and our seeming unwillingness to change it. On a meta level, Anbert takes her works engagement with the subject of political-economy a step further as the price she sells her pieces for is determined directly by the income of the buyer.

I caught up with Anbert ahead of the performance and lecture taking place at Overgaden on July 12th, Arbejdsliv i konkurrencestaten, in which performers will make use of Anbert’s absurd tools of modern working life and sociologist Pil Christensen will provide an analysis of the toxicity of workplace competition. During our conversation, Anbert spoke about the unacknowledged politics of work and why satirical karaoke might be the best way of exposing them.

Interview with Hannah Anbert 'Slower and Cheaper’ Exhibition at Overgaden
Interview with Hannah Anbert 'Slower and Cheaper’ Exhibition at Overgaden

Your earlier work, such as Reinventing Our Past, seemed to be a little more abstract but still communicated a narrative and social commentary. Was it a conscious choice to become more overt in expressing the politics of your artistic projects? And if so why?

No, I work with what I find interesting and important at a given time and context. In Reinventing Our Past, I exhibited the results of a fictional archaeological discovery from the Iron Age and made a performative guided tour around the exhibition. I was interested in a branch within critical archeology that considers how our contemporary values and norms are read into objects that were produced before the development of written language. In this work, I was particularly interested in notions of ownership, social structures and national identity. The way we tell our story is important. They are a part of how our contemporary perceptions of what is normal and right are defended and “naturalized”. I think this is of deep political relevance, even though it’s not really topics that are being discussed in an election campaign. But think, for example, of how the television series “Damnarkshistorien” on DR1 is based on a narrative about the nation of Denmark. The nation state is presented as the obvious end point of history.

The upcoming exhibition, Slower and Cheaper, seems to build upon a theme from more recent works of yours, such as Sacred Work and Career Cabaret. What do you see as the development between these pieces?

These three works relate to the phenomenon of work, but from different angles. With Sacred Work, I was interested in the relationship between religion and work. I believe our attitudes to work connects back to the Protestant work ethic: work as a means of honoring God, a moral imperative. Also work seems to fill some of the gaps religion has left: work has become a central aspect of how we create meaning in life and the act of taking part in working society can be seen as an individual moral practice as well a collective ethical obligation. Even now when there is no post-life divine salvation in hard work. So I wanted to pose the question of whether work can be compared to a religious practice in contemporary society. In Sacred Work, I was primarily interested in the importance of work for the individual, both in terms of a form of meaning making, but also as a means of creating an identity, among other things. So it made sense to work with costumes.

Career Cabaret draws on some of the same ideas, but the focus was shifted to deal with the social aspects of work; work as a form of social choreography. The scenographic elements of Career Cabaret grew out of an experience of the labor market as a stage on which we are all performers. Here, work is understood as much more than simply a mode of production, it is also a social ritual that contains elements of performance, rehearsing and dressing up.

But why do I think it’s so important that we reflect on work? There are several reasons. A great many people spend the best hours of the day, 5 days a week along with masses of energy and creativity on their work. This is nothing bad in itself, but I think it’s important to ask yourself the existential question: on what does it make sense to spend your time?

Interview with Hannah Anbert 'Slower and Cheaper’ Exhibition at Overgaden

Especially when we can see that stress, to a greater or lesser extent, has become almost an expected side effect of a working life. At the same time, we see that people who do not have access to work or who choose not to work are socially stigmatized. Therefore, it is important to reflect on how we use our time meaningfully and to question the demands of ourselves and each other.

Another aspect that makes work an important topic is the question of whether more productivity is, by definition, something positive. This applies both on a personal level, but also to the global level. I think Gregers Andersen’s term “exhaustion culture” describes very well the value system we live in. We exhaust ourselves and at the same time we exhaust the planet through constant overproduction. If we really want to change something about it, it is not enough to create increased demand for organic goods and wind energy—there is a need for cultural critique of the imperative towards evermore production ever faster as something that is always better. I hope that Slower and Cheaper can be a part of this cultural critique.

The new exhibition seems to have shifted focus from work as measure of self worth to the notion of production itself. What do you consider to be the value of inefficiency?

That is a good question, and it is back to the question of what we generally experience as valuable. In terms of challenging the exhaustion culture I just mentioned, one might say that we need a new set of standards for what we perceive as valuable. The exhibition’s title, Slower and Cheaper, points towards such an alternative value system, where the slow, the cheap and the inefficient are celebrated. The individual pieces are sites for either “production” or “recreation” and are in each way a reflection of a production culture where speed efficiency and high turnover are ideal.

The piece, Activities of Daily Living (ADL), gets its title from the Human Resource Management terminology. ADL is a common name for everything we need to have the time to do to be able to work—such as going to the bathroom, swimming, eating, sleeping, recuperating. In this piece, the recreational activity “to walk” is pared down to a minimum: a circle of grass where you can walk. Here, I am simply interested in the value of the inefficient or non-productive, because recreation seems only to be valuable as it enables us to be productive again with renewed energy. We are so used to thinking that something has to come out of everything we do. There must be a goal, a direction, a production. At least I have noticed that this thinking is a part of me and that’s something I’m still investigating, both artistically and on a personal level. I myself have been completely infiltrated by this value system of optimized production.

In Slower and Cheaper, there is also the piece Chew. Here, a whole window frame is covered in chewed chewing gum and there are buckets filled with more gum, ready to continue the work during performances during the exhibition. The “non-activity” of chewing gum is put in a frame that shows it as work in progress. But to cover the windows with chewed gum is enormously slow and also immediately meaningless. Here I am investigating how something can be perceived as a meaningful activity if it is framed as a work.

Interview with Hannah Anbert 'Slower and Cheaper’ Exhibition at Overgaden

Both in Chew and many of the other pieces, there is an element to play. For example, in Celebration Production, in which a performer sits in a high chair and painstakingly cuts one piece of confetti after another, which falls to the ground the moment it is produced. In a way, work is a strange game that adults play with each other.

How do you see the notion of artistic work in relation to the kinds of work your practice critiques?

My interest in work is derived from very personal experience, a curiosity about why I am willing to put so much energy and time into my work, and why it is an important part of my identity. As well as something resource-intensive and, at times, stressful, it also gives me a sense of meaning. This complexity is an experience I share with people in all sorts in many different jobs, I think this is why my work has a certain resonance.

In many ways, our (artists’) work does not differ from any other work. Cultural workers have often been touted as the vanguard of a new type of exploited worker: the precariat. But there are many sectors working under precarious conditions and have been doing so for a long time, especially on a global level. It doesn’t mean it’s less important to criticize and challenge precarious working conditions, but there are many jobs in the service industry, the advertising industry and the education sector where creative capacity is significant capital and although fine arts are a quite specific discipline, I do not see artistic work as having a major difference from many other forms of work. Nor do I subscribe to the archetypal story of artists as other-worldly creative innocents. In many aspects our work is “just another job”. In addition to our creative work, we also write emails, applications, make annual accounts, seek unemployment benefits, investigate square meters prices of one material or another, hold meetings, make production plans, plan exhibitions and events, etc., etc.

There is a really clear and hilarious sense of humour in your pieces, ranging from absurdist costumes to the scathing lyrics of the the karaoke songs. Do you think satire works? And what would satire working mean?

I think humor is a great tool for throwing a critical look at ourselves, as individual people and as a society. When you are able to laugh at yourself, you may also be open to admit that some of the things we do are a bit ridiculous. When we can spot the absurd and perhaps random parts of the goals that we pursue, it’s easier to change inexpedient patterns. As social criticism, satire has a long history and what I’m doing is inspired by a carnival tradition. For example, in “Human Resource Management Song”, I have a karaoke singer sing “I will acknowledge you” instead of “I will always love you” and it suddenly becomes ridiculous that our emotional life, in certain situations, is so tied up with our employer’s acknowledgment of us. We can laugh at it and perhaps the laughter might provide a release. It can remind us that, after all, the acknowledgment of our work performance is not the most important thing in life.