Arne Hendriks

Time progressing to the right

Mateusz Herczka's reformulation of the real

A short interview with visual artist and choreographer Mateusz Herczka about his work process and his incredible film 44/13, recently shown in Mediamatic.


Mateusz herczka, t.lab -> Towels, 2004 -

44/13 is a single video-take, shot during a train trip between Lelystad and Almere in the Netherlands. The material was transformed using an algorithm which outputs a continuous moving image showing an analysis of what was seen, time progressing to the right. We’re not looking at consecutive frames as we do in normal films but one huge frame heavy with all the compressed information of the journey stretched in time and the space of the screen. The result shows a combination of high speed and extreme slowness creating a new genre of visual art on the edge between monumental landscape painting and visualisation science. Its unnerving quality originates in its challenge to see past, present and future as one continuous visual moment.

Even after seeing the film 44/13 several times it is difficult to understand the effects on our perception: we don’t have enough eyes. I would like to ask you a question that you yourself asked not so long ago but didn’t answer yet: What does the perfect spectator of this film look like?

To deduct an answer, we must consider the fact that in our current configuration we perceive time linearly. 44\13 is an attempt to address that fact, and find a way to perceive time "all at once" or at least in chunks. Yet the paradox remains - I spread time out on a wall so we can see it in front of us, but we seem to only see part of it. We have to walk along the projection to see what's going on at the other end. So maybe the next step is to modify the spectator instead. But how do you design a 12 meter wide spectator who is able to perceive the entire wall simultaneously? I didn’t find an answer yet.

Staying with the theme of landscape: You showed some images of yourself eating a banana in the middle of the immense and dramatic landscape of Iceland. It was as if you wanted to ignore its beauty by doing something trivial, consuming the views like a tourist. Very much the opposite from your reaction to the Dutch landscape shown in 44/13.

The Icelandic landscape has already been subject to several artistic attacks, for example Sigurdur Gudmundssons horizon studies or Steina Vasulkas mud pool videos. There is definitely an issue when I, the artist, arrive in Iceland to do a fairly long residence in the midst of the fantastic landscape and great locals. As a defensive mechanism perhaps, one wants to resist the temptation to make even more art on the theme of "horizon line" or something like that. This resistance easily flips into overcompensation, which has resulted in some artistic pranks such as the banana, or the morphing of traditional printmaking and the Swedish concept of "ollning". Ollning can be considered a special case of monotype. You press your "ollon", the tip of the penis, against for example someone’s door handle, or the rim of a plate, or schoolbook. When the victim touches this invisible mark, there is a lot of snickering amongst those who know. With traditional printmaking techniques, this mark can be made visible, and reproducible. One of the dots in your printed text could be "it".

Your work is often about creating and unveiling information by inserting and then testing some sort of formula. What is your view on the parallel between the creative process in art and science?

The process itself and the parallel with science are not new or unusual, almost any serious work in art is the result of investigation and taxonomy, whether informed by actual science or personal interest. My particular link to science seems to be about information and its own plasticity. A painting is information about the actions taken to make it - an artist could choose to make this information less or more available. An example of the latter would be Jackson Pollock or Lucian Freud. Similarly my video installation 44\13 is information, encoding the motion and angle parameters of the train in relation to time. But to unpack this information you need to know that particular landscape. You need to make the trip and then bring your ruler to the gallery. On the other hand, watching the video is an immediate aesthetic experience which is emergent from the choices made. I strive for that kind of process - to make purely functional choices that cause new properties to emerge. Probably it’s a concept nicked from Artificial Intelligence research.

Among your many instruments to encode reality is choreography? What attracted you to that specific instrument?

This is attributed more to the way things turned out rather than conscious decisions. My ideas tend to be big and expensive, and for a time it was possible to realize at least part of those ideas in institution theatre contexts, with budgets an average art gallery would only dream of. But everything comes at a price - most of these institutions had their own agendas, your ideas have to fit within the creative limits. Therefore I now gravitate towards select projects with a small group of people who share my interests. The "choreography" is just another medium, researching the same well of concepts. An important and interesting aspect of this medium is that it nearly always is a group effort, no matter who is listed as choreographer in the end.

Your work often experiments with mental limits. In a 2004 performance you had a group of dancers perform as many different ways of folding a towel as they could remember. You seem to have a need to exhaust all possibilities of any given set of rules in relation to memory and creativity.

I am fascinated by all kinds of systems, especially those which try to model, analyze or formalize aspects of the "real" organic world, if there is such a thing. All systems have some kind of "yes, but...", which makes applying the system on real life analogous to pressing a square peg into a round hole. There lies the potential for some real interesting art. The '''History of Towels'' started with discussions between me and choreographer Cristina Caprioli. She was interested in choreographic implications of technology; I have a fascination for data structures, cellular automata and the like. The project resulted in two main stage works and several sidetracks, among them Towels. Basically me and three other guys locked ourselves up in a room and started folding, sorting, taxonomizing and memorizing. In a way, we took on the roles of a database, and to remember all the foldings we had to use mnemonic techniques. The current state of the project is four men folding in unison, moving through each unique folding movement once, a setup which immediately reveals any mistake or hesitation.

So what is it you’re looking for in this configuration?

This performance revealed a difference with "traditional" performance structures. Consider the cellular automata research by Stephen Wolfram - he formulates a system of rules which generates, say, 256 different cellular automatons. Then he puts them all on the same page in the order dictated by his system of simple combinatorics and says "here they are, look". Despite the minimum of artistic decisions those pages are highly aesthetic experiences. It shows the result in the most straightforward way possible, dictated by simple constraints such as the size of the page, the bodies of four performers, and the amount of beamers available. The creativity here is in the design of the system, the choices of subject matter and the absence of "design" at the end stage. What you see emerges from these choices. Like 44/13 emerged from its choices in a similar way.