Lost is the new found: Good wood and downcycling in a time of distraction

Gabriel Johann Kvendseth: Disintegration Situation, 2013. Performance at Potsyd in Bergen
An exchange betwixt artists and frequent collaborators Rasmus Andreas Hungnes and Gabriel Johann Kvendseth on, around, and about the work of the latter

Gabriel Johann Kvendseth's work fluctuates between creation and destruction, violence and creativity, and craft and concept, while challenging conventional economical models and questioning the relationship between authorship and viewership, participation and reception.

This exchange betwixt artists and frequent collaborators Rasmus Andreas Hungnes (RAH) and Gabriel Johann Kvendseth (GJK) on, around, and about the work of the latter was conducted by email, SMS, transpersonal communication, and studio visits over the months of March, April, May, and June 2019.

«If anything, my bricolage work is downcycling, taking something useful, although often discarded, and making it useless, taking it out of the loop once and for all»

Gabriel Johann Kvendseth
Gabriel Johann Kvendseth: Chopping Wood for the Common Good?, a wood splitting performance involving an axe, ropes, chains, wood, and a noose. Kjetil Møster is playing the sax
Gabriel Johann Kvendseth: Chopping Wood for the Common Good?, a wood splitting performance involving an axe, ropes, chains, wood, and a noose

Rasmus Andreas Hungnes: How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?

Gabriel Johan Kvendseth: I don't know where this will end if I venture to actually answer such koans, but I'll take the opportunity to quote an important early source of inspiration:

Guybrush: How much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?

Carpenter: A woodchuck would chuck no amount of wood since a woodchuck can’t chuck wood.

Guybrush: But if a woodchuck could chuck and would chuck some amount of wood, what amount of wood would a woodchuck chuck?

Carpenter: Even if a woodchuck could chuck wood and even if a woodchuck would chuck wood, should a woodchuck chuck wood?

Guybrush: A woodchuck should chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood, as long as a woodchuck would chuck wood.

Carpenter: Oh shut up.

Gabriel Johann Kvendseth: Temple Top Two: Rules of Perchance at Kreuzberg Pavillon
Gabriel Johann Kvendseth: Temple Top Two: Rules of Perchance at Kreuzberg Pavillon (detail)

RAH: Monkey Island see, Monkey Island do. For the uninitiated, what you quoted there is a famous sequence from the classic adventure game Monkey Island 2: LeChuck's Revenge (1991), and last summer we put up a show at Kreuzberg Pavillon – the splendid project space which was the place of origin for your Commonument, a participatory stone carving project which has since become a public commission in Bergen and is soon going on display in Oslo – as part of their Is It A Game? exhibition series. Ludacrium developed into a boundary dissolved, collaborative, collusive, playful, and thoroughly participatory installation pieced together from work by your- and myself, Norse philologist Eirik Storesund, artist Erin Sexton, and independent game designer Connor Sherlock. Among your contributions were Temple Top Two, an abstract, chaotic, and free-form tabletop game for one to five players in which a great abundance of found and manipulated objects played the role of game pieces. Rule number IV resounded: “Don’t tell the Artificer”, artificer being an archaic term for a skilled craftsman or inventor, a theme we'll be returning to due to the context of this text. For now, let's keep exploring the theme of influences.

Looking back to the beginnings of our friend- and colleagueship, one of my earliest memories is you recommending that I watch one of your other inspirations, namely Werner Herzog's Even Dwarfs Started Small. This was during our first day of school at the art academy in Bergen way back when in two thousand seven (you coming straight outta a martial arts academy after two years at film school). Time flies and space mosquitoes, and I just now finally got around to following your recommendation. Almost twelve years later it seems that themes from the film, which tells the story of a group of rebels escaping from, revolting against, and destroying an oppressive institution, have been pervasive in your practice up until the present day, present time. An example: In your book The Escapist Disintegrated (2013) the titular character, The Escapist, betrays that “More often than not, the end result struck one as just a cowardly outlet for his fascination with destruction, downfall and violence.”

Now, if memory serves me correctly, our first post-school collaborative effort was Chopping Wood For The Common Good? (2011), a SPLIT SHOW you did with Callum Hill's Axe It Here in tandem with Kjetil Møster's sax chops at PrEmIsS, the project space run by Tarald Wassvik and myself in a condemned building in Bergen back then. Your installation and performance involved firewood, a chopping block, an axe, a leash, a noose, and woodchopping. (In a similar vein, one of your latest works that I've had a sneak peek at involves a pickaxe hopelessly chained to a boulder it cannot reach.)

Chopping wood is, like so many human endeavors, an act of concurrent creation and destruction, akin to an alchemical transmutation. As a matter of true fact, in some symbolic systems wood corresponds to fire, an element of simultaneous creative and destructive power. Subsequent performance-oriented installation pieces of yours, like the Disintegration Situation and Uskapt (“Uncreated”), seem bleaker, somehow. In these works, material contributions from the audience and donated artwork by other artists, respectively, were destroyed by means of various tools and/or weapons – lighters, swords, throwing axes, machetes, golf clubs, etc. Or, in a more optimistic view, objects were transformed into neo-post-maxi-minimalist piles of arbitrarily reorganized matter.

Then there's your ongoing body of assemblage work, which, on the upside, is based on a kind of upcycling of discarded material, while the resulting sculptures often double as functional makeshift weapons conjuring visions of a scarce, violent future. In a sense, the crowdsourcedCommonument project can be seen as dealing more exclusively with the positive aspects of transformation and creation through collaborative destruction – to put it plainly: The integrity of the stone block must give way to a multitude of new, creative expressions. I guess what I'm getting at is, any comments on my ramblings of fluctuation between annihilation and creation?

«Destruction and creation belong together, like two sides of a coin. It's the same basic rearrangement of materials, and they both require energy and some degree of skill»

Gabriel Johann Kvendseth
Gabriel Johann Kvendseth: The COMMONUMENT
Gabriel Johann Kvendseth: The COMMONUMENT or: I Have Really Tried a Couple of Times, but Suicide is No Longer an Option
Gabriel Johann Kvendseth: The COMMONUMENT or: I Have Really Tried a Couple of Times, but Suicide is No Longer an Option

GJK: Transformation, Mutation, Transfiguration, Transmogrification (also Death, or maybe not, but definitely something about economy). Destruction, or annihilation as you put it, and creation belong together, like two sides of a coin. It's the same basic rearrangement of materials, and they both require energy and some degree of skill.

I'll just jump a bit back and forth, if you don't mind. I don't like planning, I don't like things being too coherent and I don't like protocol, except when I do. I just wanted to add that one of the tools in both Disintegration Situation and Uncreated was my teeth. It seemed important to note that the artist's body was present beyond the purely performative aspect.

Have themes from Herzog's film been pervasive in my work? Yes. I mean no. I certainly mean yes. That's what I'm doing, it has nothing to do with what I do. I try to not know why I do what I do, you can relate to that, right?

I hate the word upcycling. For me, it is one of those greenwashing terms that somehow give us a better conscience about increased consumption. If all our trash was left in the streets, we would soon realize what is up. Just consider the attention given to marine plastic. Upcycle that shit if you will. If anything, my bricolage work is downcycling, taking something useful, although often discarded, and making it useless, taking it out of the loop once and for all.

Positive, negative, I don't know about these things right now, I'm distracted. When I involve the audience, I like to put something on the line, put my head on the chopping block so to speak. I try to create situations in which, if the audience rejects the premise, I am left with nothing. It feels like a very necessary risk, and something of an obligation on my part, a kind of social contract between me as an artist and the spectator/participator.

Some times I make things, some times I break things, sometimes I make things from what I break, sometimes I break what I make. It's a dance that I try to be no-mind about (although I regularly fail).

Does this take you anywhere? Have you read The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction by Ursula Le Guin, by the way? I wish I wrote more than I do. You should also ask me something about my SMS “work”. I still wonder what happened to the wooden cock I carved and left at PremISS.

Best, G

Gabriel Johann Kvendseth: detail from The BUY, TRADE or TAKE Collection, 2013

RAH: I can certainly relate to trying not to know why I do what I do. It's a conundrum sometimes.

I also wonder what happened to the PReMISS penis – it was a piece of good wood. Ursula K. Le Guin's Sci-Fi and fantasy has been with me since adolescence thanks to my dear Mother, but I hadn't read that essay before. Now I have, and I absolutely love the elevation of vessels and dismissal of violence she there proposes. And I finally realize the connection betwixt Matrices and Moms. Apropos of carrying and lost art, burglars chose to utilize my Mickey Mouse EU flag textile work as a makeshift bag during the tragic pREMISS double break-in of 2011. What did you carry away from The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction?

GJK: To quote from the essay: “Before–once you think about it, surely long before–the weapon, a late, luxurious, superfluous tool; long before the useful knife and ax; right along with the indispensable whacker, grinder, and digger– for what’s the use of digging up a lot of potatoes if you have nothing to lug ones you can’t eat home in–with or before the tool that forces energy outward, we made the tool that brings energy home. It makes sense to me.”

“The weapon, a late, luxurious, superfluous tool.” I can't hope to say any it better or more precisely than that! I don't know why the essay was such an eye opener for me, but it struck a chord right at a time when I was experimenting with rudimentary weaving and sewing. I didn't give up on the tool/weapon bricolages, but they suddenly made more sense in all their warped, aestheticized dysfunctionality. Since then my scope expanded, simply put.

RAH: In terms of wood and that hyper-container of patriarchy called the economy, have you seen Herzog's How Much Wood Would A Woodchuck Chuck? This 1976 documentary tells the story about the World Livestock Auctioneer Championship – the auction chanting gold medalist betrays that the titular tongue twister is an étude of his – and I know you're no stranger to auctions and the ilk. I even seem to remember you demonstrating some serious auction chanting skills back in the academy days, when we held auctions for fund-raising our exhibitions. Herzog has said that he believes auctioneering to be “the last poetry possible, the poetry of capitalism.” Tell me about your interest in laissez-faire economies and so on?

GJK: Well, as you well know, economy is all encompassing whether we like it or not. It's not that I hold a particular interest in laissez-faire economies – rather, I'm interested in all economies, although my small artistic endeavors and explorations thus far have covered a limited scope. Money has always been a really important part of my life because I always had so little of it, especially while growing up.

I enjoy exploring value systems, destruction vs. creation, money as a material or physical object, giving the control of pricing to the spectator instead of the gallery, giving stuff away. Among my works relating to such themes are the Give Away Archive, where the audience could take anything they wanted from the archive/show in exchange for leaving behind a written a description of what they took so that the idea of the object would be retained, and the Buy Trade or Take Collection, in which the audience were free to buy (for a price of their own choosing), trade (for anything), or just flat out take any object in the show. Then, in addition to the aforementioned Disintegration Situation, there's Arbeidskapital, where I took a shovel like the one depicted in Munch's painting Workers in Snow and covered it entirely in Norwegian coins from between 1909, the same coins that were in circulation when the picture was painted, and 2013, the year I made the sculpture, as well as Trekrone, a collection of land art assemblages consisting of tree stumps, trees that were dead or dying due to having their bark stripped away by hungry goats, circa two-thousand Norwegian 1-crown coins, and unretractable, galvanized steel nails.

My brother once tried paying for something at 7-11 with one of my bent 1-crown coins, the ones that served as transaction tokens in Disintegration Situation. The clerk got really mad, but accepted them before promptly throwing them away and replacing the amount from his own pocket. I brought some of those coins to a gallery store for a show and sold them for 2 crowns a piece. I was told they sold out in 10 minutes. I'm really interested in what constitutes value and why. Right, that's all I have right now. Talk to you soon.

«I enjoy exploring value systems, destruction vs. creation, money as a material or physical object, giving the control of pricing to the spectator instead of the gallery, giving stuff away»

Gabriel Johann Kvendseth
Gabriel Johann Kvendseth: Uskapt ("Uncreated") from the group exhibition Game of Life II: Knust i offentlig rom at Kristiansand Kunsthall, curated by Jan Freuchen and Sigurd Tenningen
Gabriel Johann Kvendseth: Disintegration Situation, 2013. Performance at Potsyd in Bergen

Meanwhile, via SMS:

RAH: How is your SMS “work” doing? Do you still text your own ideas to yourself, using your cellular device as a kind of “extended mind”?

Soon-ish – a month or so later – back at the email medium:

GJK: I still do send myself SMS's of my own thoughts, memos, quotes, fragments and reminders. I just noticed when I downloaded the thread on my current phone, which includes most of the earlier ones, but not all, it starts with “Creation is inherently violent” and ends “Lost is the new found”. Happenstance, perhaps.

RAH: Perchance happenstance, an interesting synchronicity nonetheless. As I'm sure you know by now, I'm not that preoccupied with distinction and such devices of conventional cultural capitalism – interconnectedness and boundary dissolution are more my thing – but here we are having this conversation on a platform called Norwegian Crafts. While the lost dick we've been reminiscing about was something that you carved and your assemblage objects have palpable connotations to utility, the SMS project is raw, unadulterated concept.

Defining craft as “skill, dexterity; art, science, talent”, “mental power” (craftiness), “trade, handicraft, employment requiring special skill or dexterity”, also “something built or made”, “to build, to make skilfully”, and closely etymologically related to Norwegian “kraft”, meaning “power” and “strength”, let me quote The Escapist Disintegrated once again: “The Escapist recognized skill and craftsmanship when he saw it, as any cunning connoisseur would, although covertly he would envy such work and look down upon the necessary refinement needed to gain the ability to produce such practical beauty.”            

As someone who went from film school to the academy of fine art and subsequently have been co-opted, as it were, as a craft artist, what are your thoughts about the so-called fields of “fine” or “contemporary” art and art “and craft”?

«I like the Norwegian term kunsthandverk: Art – Hand – Work. To me that's an adequate description in itself: Art that is made by the hand of the creating artist»

Gabriel Johann Kvendseth
Gabriel Johann Kvendseth: The Give Away Archive, 2012

GJK: Ah, the recurring question of the distinction between craft and art. I suppose much has been said on that note, by others who have thought longer and better on it than I.

Initially I was surprised to be counted as a crafter, as I never saw myself as one (although I didn't not see myself as one, I just hadn't really thought about it). I like the Norwegian term kunsthandverk: Art – Hand – Work. To me that's an adequate description in itself: Art that is made by the hand of the creating artist. Recently I have come across the term “contemporary craft”, which seems as apt a term as contemporary art or any such ilk, I guess.

I would note that in my experience the discourse about the union of – and dissolution of the separation between – craft and art has come far here in Norway. We no longer talk so much about the distinction between craft and art. I think that after all it is a discussion akin to the question “What is art?”, something I would not care to ask nor answer.

RAH: The river of time is running dry and we've reached our allotted character quota – and beyond! Thinking about endings, I'm reminded of that time you inadvertently ended the opening night of pOTSYd, the group show we did in that WWII underground bomb shelter in 2013. Shortly after you smashed open what turned out to be a container of pepper spray (clandestinely left in the pile of donated objects destined for destruction by an unknown audience member) at your Disintegration Situation, everybody but the most seasoned protesters in the audience were inclined to promptly skidaddle and vacate the premises. I would be remiss not to mention that we had just run out of intoxicating drink, so the timing was impeccable. Alas, I seem unable to find an equally elegant way of rounding off our conversation, so why don't you end it all by telling us a bit about the exhibition you're currently working on?

GJK: I am slightly reluctant to putting what I am working on for my exhibition in Kabuso alongside Arvid Pettersen into words yet, but for my part, there will be some old work, some new work, some reworked work, most of it recognizable to those that know my earlier work, some of it not.

We've called the show SETT ALLE REDE, with a marked spacing allowing it to simultaneously mean both “Seen Already” and “Prepare Everyone” in Norwegian. As for the format of the show, Arvid and myself are working closely together while keeping an ongoing dialogue about the show. I find it very rewarding. Arvid is an artist that I very much appreciate and respect, and the same could be said about him as a person. It is awe-inspiring to work with and exhibit alongside someone described as a Nestor of Norwegian arts.

RAH: Thanx Gabe.

GJK: De nada, darling.

Gabriel Johann Kvendseth: Arbeidskapital (Labor Capital), 2013, Kragerø
Gabriel Johann Kvendseth: Uten tittel / Untitled (2019)

The exhibition SETT ALLE REDE by Gabriel Johann Kvendseth and Arvid Pettersen at Kunsthuset Kabuso, Øystese, Norway opened June 15th and will be on view until September 8th 2019