Artist Profile: Sami Ben Larbi

Parle moi je t'écoute, 2006-7

Fiction, history and reality are constantly being intertwined throughout your work. How do you balance the phantasmic with reality? How do these techniques propel or help understand the history and politics in works like As it might, could, did happen and Was Bourguiba, then Ben Ali, awaiting the next

The balance is very vague and I keep it so as long as possible. I want the viewers to find their own balance.

When Bourguiba first came to power, he was hailed as a savior, a liberator of the oppressive French. Images of him where everywhere. He cultivated that cult, just like any other dictator and was able to hold on to power for a long time. The fiction of the liberator was trying to negate the reality of living under his reign.

In my work I ask the viewers to consider what is being presented, to form their own understanding and opinion. In As it might, could, did happen, I recreated a bedroom (with furniture made of cardboard and wood imitation vinyl) in what was a East German Pioneers boarding house. The furniture looked almost authentic, but not quite. It played with the pre-conceptions of how East German furniture looked cheap and homogeneous. But the environment was real. So the balance here between fiction and reality is very flexible.

In one of your project’s statements you describe the struggle with your identity as the following: “I want to be this icon, this Frenchness, while also being who I am a mix breed, neither one nor the other. Arab, but French, but American, but becoming German?”

With this, works like, La distinction entre un carthaginois et un hexadecagone, au subjonctifLayered Tense, and Pictures I wish I had are attempts at contextualizing the fragmented identity in all its disparate variations. The dynamic between the placement of the ‘individual’ and the ‘group’ is constantly being challenged in today’s nobody-lives-where-there ancestors-did world. How do you deal with and approach this spectrum?

This fragmentation is very much at the center of my work. As you mentioned I am a member of various identities, nationalities. I identify, understand, relate with each of these groups. But I am always an outsider, because of these other affiliations and identities.

In my work I exploit and subvert the roles of the maker and the audience. In La distinction entre un carthaginois et un hexadecagone, au subjonctif, I play the role of Antoine Doinel, the lead character, and the viewers are the audience in the scene. But there is no way to enter the rotor, there is a clear separation, a frustration. I try to be this French icon, but I am not and in the installation I am trapped, doomed to repeat the scene over and over. Pictures I wish I had also deal with a certain frustration. The installation is a familiar environment, a living room but the pictures on the walls are blank and the viewers cannot sit on the chairs. So one could almost belong but a barrier exists preventing that.

The fragmentation is recurring. In North by Northwest, Erased and Reshot, the cinematic language of the famous scene from Hitchcock's film has been restructured. On one side the original scene is stripped of characters, autos and a plane. Stripped of its identity. On the other side the reshot scene is with me as Cary Grant, always looking toward the camera, transforming the viewer into the other protagonists in the scene. As a viewer, to experience the installation is to re-edit the scene and try to make sense of what is happening. Re-creating an identity. Maybe sensing a déjà vu but not quite placing it.

It seems that the autonomy of the art object and the film are never enough for you in your work.  When used, they always exist within a larger constellation of things, as essential ‘props’ to the faithful conveying of a ‘scene’. These large, encompassing installations create a certain cinematic mood: a direct immersive environment for viewers to conceive a narrative.  I’m interested in the way you approach these designed spaces as well as how architecture is considered throughout your body of work. Where do you place these environments in relation to film? Why awake and privilege the senses this way?

The reality and the fiction come here into play. Transposing time. Placing the viewers in a set and creating an interaction. I want to create an experience. Something, a feeling, a personal understanding between the installations and the viewers. A very early piece, Un der Pres S Ure, had the viewers become actors and only witness the audience to this interaction. It's a desire to communicate on a very basic level and at first, physical. My work begins with a physical experience, like architecture. The viewers are in a total environment that considers its environment, its architecture and its history. To refer back to the film reference, the viewers step into a set. I consider it live cinema, or real cinema, frozen in a certain time period.

The gallery space is abandoned as a sufficient, pre-requisite space to work within and that this abandonment seems most beneficial to you, as most of your work often alters the entirety of a space.  I’m curious as to what kind of interference, or intervention you’re interested in creating by choosing to present ideas and experiences in such locations as a FDJ boarding room or a deserted military base. What does ‘art’ outside of its gallery context mean for you? How does it lend toward the ‘situational’?

I am not sure that the gallery has ever been sufficient, it's a display-space marketed toward sales just like any other product. It's blank and as such works well for singular objects (painting, sculptures...). I tend to create environments where everything in the space has been considered, the architecture, its history and my alterations / additions.

The FDJ boarding room is a great example of that. One could argue that I could have done the installation anywhere else. However prior to entering my room the viewers experienced stairs with a hand rail at kid height, a long hallway with multiple numbered doors on each side. This set the understanding and mood of the space in a certain direction. It felt authentic, because it was. Upon entering my installation one could believe what one saw. In other word an alternative space (to that of the gallery) lends to more interpretative potential.

But this is also double edged. My artwork exist rarely outside the installations I create, which are time based. They have a relatively short life spam. I rarely recreate the same installations somewhere else.

Age: 39

Location: Berlin, Germany

How long have you been working creatively with technology? How did you start?

About 10 years ago I was experimenting with lots of materials and genres at the UW and I was always interested in Cinema, its development and its theories. I was then taking lots of film history and theory classes. I was interested in furthering the idea of “real cinema” put forth by the french and italian movements. The idea of creating an art form closer to reality. I started incorporating live cameras and monitors in an early installation I did and I have been using technology ever since.

Describe your experience with the tools you use. How did you start using them?

I use tools as I need them. If I do not know a tool or a process I will teach myself. I started doing carpentry work in my undergrad studies by pretending I could do the job, and set myself up to learn as fast and as good as possible. I can do lots of things (wood work, metal work, casting, sewing, computer work...). All pretty much self taught, with lots and lots of trial and error. I still have lots to learn.

Where did you go to school? What did you study?

I went to The University of Washington where I studied Ceramics with the great Jamie Walker, Akio Takamori and Doug Jeck. I then went to Virginia Commonwealth University to study Sculpture and Extended media with Siemon Allen, Kendall Buster, Elizabeth King and Amy Hauft.

 What traditional media do you use, if any? Do you think your work with traditional media relates to your work with technology?

I use them all, all the time. It's part of my artistic process. It's a means to an end, just like media is. They are both intertwined. I could not conceive and realize the installations I create without the understanding of both.

Are you involved in other creative or social activities (i.e. music, writing, activism, community organizing)?

I go mushroom hunting when I can. I travel and cook sweet dishes for people whenever I can. I plan on doing more acting in the near future.

What do you do for a living or what occupations have you held previously? Do you think this work relates to your art practice in a significant way?

For the moment I work installing art shows in museums and for artists. I have also taught art at TU Berlin. I was a building manager. I was also a house cleaner, a carpenter, a mason, a dishwasher, a math and physics tutor, a basket-ball coach, a gardener, a graphic designer, a seamster, a pizza delivery boy. They all have influenced me. I have either re-used the knowledge and experience to physically produce the work or they influenced the way I see.

Who are your key artistic influences?

Stan Douglas comes quickly to mind, as did early Tony Oursler and Gary Hill pieces. I like a lot Steve Mc Queen, Bruce Naumann, Omer Fast. Tsai Ming-Liang is also a key figure.

Have you collaborated with anyone in the art community on a project? With whom, and on what?

I have worked with Fionn Meade and Mary Simpson on a few of their projects, short films/ sequences. I am currently developing projects with Philine Sollmann on a photo-film series.

Do you actively study art history?

I did in school. Installing artworks, from old renaissance paintings to current artists, I do get to experience and learn from them, which I find a lot more informative than seeing slides or a reproduction in a book. One gets to really experience the materiality of the artwork and gain a deeper appreciation, or not.

Do you read art criticism, philosophy, or critical theory? If so, which authors inspire you?

I am familiar with some of the art theories out there but I must say it rather turns me off. When I read Bourriaud and then experience some of the artwork it champions the two do not compute. I prefer to read historical or semi historical books and essays like Amin Maalouf. I do read art criticism and reviews to keep me informed.

 Are there any issues around the production of, or the display/exhibition of new media art that you are concerned about?

Very much so..I use media in my work, but it's not about media. The various materials used in the work are just a vehicle. As such I have a hard time getting funding for projects. In a typical grant-funding application, one must either enter images, or video, not both. To get a sense of my work I need to have both to give a sense of the experience. The granting foundations and associations are still very slow in recognizing this hybrid genre.