in Interviews | 14 AUG 13
Featured in
Issue 11

Less is

Artist Karin Sander and social scientist Harald Welzer have known each other since Welzer exhibited Sander’s works as a gallerist in Hanover in the 1990s. In his most recent book Selbst denken. Eine Anleitung zum Widerstand (Thinking for Ourselves: a Manual for Resistance, 2013), Welzer calls for a move away from the ideology of economic growth, in light of world­­‑wide economic crises, calling instead for intelligent concepts for a ‘culture of reduction’. Intelligent reduction is exactly what Sander’s art engages with time and again. This conversation between Sander and Welzer, moderated by Jörg Heiser, includes a conceptual intervention by Sander.

in Interviews | 14 AUG 13

JÖRG HEISER: Harald Welzer, the term cognitive dissonance was coined by US social psychologist Leon Festinger. This term seems to play a key role in your recent book Thinking for Ourselves. Cognitive dissonance occurs when I encounter a discrepancy between wish and reality, and attempt to gloss over it. But cognitive dissonance can also be an intentionally inflicted irritation.

HARALD WELZWER: Part of my work involves generating cognitive dissonance. When I try to get people to ditch their SUVs, I create – in the best case – cognitive dissonance. Then, people no longer feel so comfortable with their purchasing decisions. It’s interesting to see the adjustment that results from this: dissonance either leads one to change reality or – in the normal version of dissonance reduction – to change one’s expectations of reality. Those are the two options.

JH: Karin Sander, does cognitive dissonance play a role in your works?


Chicken Egg, Polished, Raw, Size 0 (1994), included in Leiblicher Logos. 14 Künstlerinnen aus Deutschland (Embodied Logos – 14 Women Artists from Germany), 1995–9. A travelling exhibition curated by Gudrun Inboden, organized by the Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen (ifa), Stuttgart (first installment at Staatsgalerie Stuttgart, 1995; last installament at Tochigi Prefectural Museum of Fine Arts, Utsunomya, Japan, 1999), Collection L’Espace de l’Art Concret (Sybill Albers), Mouans-Sartoux.

JH: The banal breakfast egg becomes a polished fetish object. Edward Bernays, a nephew of Sigmund Freud and the inventor of public relations, gave us the story of the re-evaluation of another fetish: in 1929 he hired women to smoke cigarettes at the Easter Sunday Parade in New York City – scandalous behaviour at the time. He did this on behalf of the American tobacco industry. The slogan he used was ‘torches of freedom’ – the cigarette as symbol of freedom and emancipation. Newspapers were falling all over themselves to cover the story and women’s cigarette consumption skyrocketed. Mr Welzer, don’t you have to employ similarly perfidious strategies in the quest to change reality?

HW: I guess that’s the case. Smoking quickly became the gesture of emancipation par excellence. Today, however, the Marlboro Cowboy is being forced to disappear. Longstanding traditions can become loaded and then unloaded with symbolic meaning incredibly quickly. How can we make use of this? Take the example of community gardens. They originated as artist’s projects in London, Chicago or Berlin, and now they have become a global movement far beyond the reaches of the art world. It is interesting though to see that the underlying idea is a genuine artistic one, this impulse of saying ‘there’s something that we can also turn into something else’.


5 Pieces of Artificial Turf (1997), Park Warmer Damm, Wiesbaden, artificial turf, foam, each 200 × 200 cm.1

HW: Suddenly a city district becomes a radically altered user interface. As for the concept of community gardens, it’s self-evident that it has spread across the globe in just a few years. That’s how social innovation works, in my view. With ‘Andernach, Edible City’, a formerly niche concept has turned into the official green space policy of a German municipality. A lot of towns will imitate this. And it wasn’t initiated by €500,000 funding for a research project, but rather grew out of an aesthetic approach.

JH: But how would it be possible to imbue the reduction of consumption – a central demand of your book – with positive connotations at a libidinous level? Does it come down to similar strategies of ‘greenwashing’ products, of alleviating bad consciences?

HW: With greenwashing you react to an altered state of consciousness by saying that the product needs at least to be green so that the critical consumer isn’t ashamed. The debate looks different if I define certain courses of action as an aesthetic way of living and not as a sacrifice in one’s quality of living. Then I see the real deprivation among those poor people who constantly have to look for a parking space for their giant SUVs. A car like that is like the ball and chain around a cartoon prisoner’s leg.

JH: One of your works, Ms Sander, concerns an incident with a taxi driver during Art Basel …


The book that belongs to Brad Pitt (2008), Art Basel catalogue, 20 × 25 cm. As I was getting out of a taxi at Art Basel, the driver said ‘Brad Pitt just left this book in my cab, maybe you could give it back to him.’ Since then I’ve been guarding it carefully and showing it occasionally in exhibitions. If he comes by, he’s welcome to have it anytime.

HW: I didn’t know this work at all; it had totally escaped my notice!

JH: Ms Sander, you often work with 3D body scans of living people…


Karl Lagerfeld 1:10 (2003), 3D body scan, FDM (Fused Deposition Modelling), ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene), scale 1:10, height c.18 cm, collection of the St. Gallen Art Museum.

JH: It’s known that Lagerfeld habitually buys an incredible amount of books and CDs, surrounding himself with countless things that could someday, somehow become useful to him again. You often have an opposite impulse: to create empty space. How does this come about?


Wände, umgelegt (Walls, Moved, 2012), existing wall, disassembled and moved. Galerie Esther Schipper, Berlin, 2012.4

JH: The disassembly implies that this thing can go away, it isn’t needed. In Thinking for Ourselves, the piece of Ikea furniture isn’t an example of reduction, but its opposite: the principle of producing future junk, of ‘throwaway-cheap’. On the other hand, when my aunt dies, do I throw out all her stuff or do I keep her chest of drawers? ‘Made to last forever’ also implies a burden.


Kernbohrungen (Core Drillings, 2011), wastepaper from 5 offices of the Neuer Berliner Kunstverein, 5 holes in the floor of the offices / in the ceiling of the exhibition space. Ceiling holes each 30 cm diameter. NBK, Berlin, 2011.6

HW: Here rubbish becomes public and remains visible. Normally it would vanish. This disappearance is what makes the debasement of the object possible, as in the case of Ikea furniture. Another example: until about 50 years ago no suit was ever made that wasn’t designed and sewn in such a way that one could alter it. The possibility of just throwing away the suit was not anticipated conceptually. This is a very interesting aesthetic stance: value meant making things so that they didn’t lose their use value. It’s also very interesting how unbelievably fast this attitude vanishes. Why should I bother to deal with a carpenter? Quick, let’s just drive to Ikea instead!

JH: Andy Warhol said he liked McDonald’s because wherever he was in the world, he always knew he’d get exactly what he expected – a piece of home.

HW: Warhol was clairvoyant, that’s why he was so good. He recognized the global tendency towards standardization early on. Consumerism doesn’t keep the promises it makes, that I can differentiate myself by the products I buy. If I have a piece of furniture or a suit or a pair of shoes custom-made, then they’re unique; if I don’t, there’s a global levelling effect. Foregoing consumption – buying a small number of high-quality things rather than a large number of low-quality things – would mean regaining individualization as a result.

JH: This immediately evokes an image of the uptight middle class person shopping at Manufactum, the German retailer of goods made with traditional manufacturing methods …

HW: But that’s just a vestige. Manufactum only works because the other form of consumerism works. Going back just 40 years, even working class German households saved up two or three months’ income for their living room suite and they bought it from the furniture dealer around the corner. The fact that my family started shopping at Ikea was simply due to the fact that a store opened near them. Hmm, a whole living room suite costs only 300 Deutschmarks there, why pay 3,000 elsewhere? And hey presto! A cultural practice was established.


The Balcony, Łodz (1990), white wall paint that was publicly distributed. Result shortly thereafter.

JH: So availability, what’s on offer, plays a major role in altering behaviour. How does the 3D printer that allows you to plot specific objects fit in? Is it a subversion of the system or part of the problem?


Messebesucher 1:7,7… Unlimited (Art-Fair Visitors 1:7,7… Unlimited, 2001), Art Unlimited, Art 32 Basel, 2001. Mobile scanning lab (Scanliner). 3D body scans of art fair visitors, 3D printing, plaster, pigment (chromium oxide hydrate green), scale 1:7,7…; height each: c. 20–23 cm.

JH: Back then, a mobile scanning lab would require an entire truck. Today we’re on the verge of being able to buy a 3D printer at a retailer like Media Markt.

HW: I’ve never really quite understood this. This thing can’t spit out a functioning laptop for me, can it?

JH: Probably a functioning gun at least.

HW: Which immediately falls apart.

JH: Certain members of the digital activist community dream of printing pirated designer chairs.

HW: But where do the various materials come from? Not everything can be made of plastic. The 3D printer doesn’t replace anything; it multiplies things. It’s like with the invention of the photocopier, which brought with it a flood of paper. People print themselves all kinds of rubbish, and then they don’t know what to do with it. These are devices of multiplication.

JH: But is multiplication the only thing, say, a smartphone is about? Such a phone theoretically enables me to get rid of possessions that cost me money, time and stress. Instead of my own car I have a car-sharing app that shows me available vehicles nearby. That could have been an excuse for you to write 20 pages in Thinking for Ourselves about what’s great about smartphones.

HW: But smartphones are stupid. They’re stupid just like wind turbines and nuclear power plants. Stupid in the sense that these technological objects gain their quality only through their respective cultural uses. If we have a reductive culture, then such a stupid thing can of course gain another quality. I also say that renewable energy is not a gain in itself, but rather is – within the framework of an expansive economy – an incredible driver of catastrophe, not a preventer of it. This is the argument for which I’m always tarred and feathered. By contrast, in a culture of reduction – reduction rather than overproduction and depletion – renewable energy is much better than fossil fuels. The problem with renewable energy sources is that eroticized notions of perpetuity are encoded in them. The same is true of mediums of communication. If a smartphone were used in the interest of a culture of reduction, then hundreds of its functions wouldn’t be there in the first place.


Visitors on Display (2008–13), 981 museum visitors and three dogs 1:8, installation view, Lehmbruck Museum Duisburg, 2013, permanent loan of private collection, Frankfurt am Main.8

JH: In this work, copies of a large number of people are made on a smaller scale. A market theorist would likewise, though perhaps with other intentions, correlate quantity and reduction: first I have to ensure that a lot of products, such as apps, also include rubbish and nonsense so that I can then pare this down and leave only the things that yield a true qualitative step forward. Trial and error.

HW: Yes, that’s the prevailing model: we need to generate growth so that we can effectively protect the environment. I have to have 50 affairs before I can be faithful to my spouse. These are quantitative logics that lead to utterly ludicrous, surreal rationales.

JH: Karin, you’re a specialist in differentiating between the

aesthetically necessary and the superfluous. The Mailed Paintings seem initially to be simply ‘empty’ canvases.


Mailed Paintings (2004–7). Stretched canvases in standard sizes, white universal primer, D’Amelio Terras, New York, 2007.

JH: The canvases were sent without any packaging and got dirty accordingly – marks were left on them. Exposing canvases to chance factors is nothing new – Edvard Munch, for example, put pictures outside so that rain would fall on them.


Mailed Painting 119. Berlin – London – Berlin – London – Berlin – Dresden – Berlin (2011) Stretched canvas in standard sizes, white universal primer, 30 × 40 cm.

JH: So it’s rather a matter of passing on the creation of the art work to others?


Karin Sander (2002), 62 portrait photographs of women named Karin Sander, collected from their private archives, digital photo prints, framed. Each: 47 × 40 cm or 40 × 40 cm.

JH: The choice of photograph was left to each woman. It’s solely about relativizing authorship, about relativizing the person of the artist. Could art itself be similarly relativized? In regard to a reductive culture, it certainly seems to be out of the question: countless ‘superfluous’ things: shipments, travel …

HW: Art is on the one hand the absolutely ideal capitalist form because it is pure exchange value without use value. On the other hand, ideally it doesn’t have to submit to certain dictates of other realms of society – and thus becomes a medium of understanding.

JH: In Thinking for Ourselves you speak polemically of the environmental movement’s peaceful co-existence with ‘extractivism’, the ruthless exploitation of natural resources. Could one analogously say that in the art world, reductive art peacefully co-exists with bling art?


Wandstück 300 × 420, 3 Parts (Wall Piece, 3 Parts, 1993/1996), polished wall paint, each 300 × 420 cm.9

JH: It certainly seems to be more fun for you to find potential in reduction, in ‘that’s enough’, rather than always adding more. Which was also true for the 1993 exhibition at Harald Welzer’s gallery space in Hannover involving polished wall pieces. But again, Mr Welzer, what does it mean that the environmental movement peacefully co-exists with ruthless exploitation?

HW: An environmental movement that steps in at certain points to say ‘now this is going too far’ is part of the development of a modern society. That’s why its ideas are adapted by political parties: aha, things work out better with green than without. The parallel existence of extremely reductive and rather baroque forms of artistic production, by contrast, is more a matter of a systemically determined pluralism.

JH: Classic avant-gardes always understood themselves as superseding their predecessors. Even Op and Pop art fought against each other. Today we have a radical simultaneity of all aesthetic options. Is this part of the absence of utopia which you lament in your book?

HW: Perhaps pluralistic concurrence is indeed a phenomenon of stagnation. What I see as an example of the formation of an avant-garde par excellence is El Lissitzky’s children’s book about two squares that travel around the world. There are no people, there’s no actual world, and there’s scarcely any narrative. It’s rather an attempt to imagine an entirely different world – as a children’s book. In the present, by contrast, we have an additive process, we place everything side by side: the completely minimal design and the Lamborghini SUV. That’s the phenomenon of stagnation: our culture is seeking to solve this blatant problem through every last addition. That’s why I’m confident that another avant-garde movement will come – but the great thing is that one never knows beforehand where it will turn up.

JH: In the classic avant-garde writing of history, what always mattered most was who had been the first to do something, and when.


Wasser zählen (Counting Water, 1962/2000), black and white photograph by Edith Sander, 30 × 22 cm.10

JH: This picture shows you as a five-year-old, focused with a child’s concentration counting scoops of water. It really seems to be your very first work! And at the same time it accents a method of working that you have continued to use to this day: observing material rather than plucking an idea out of nowhere. For Marx and Engels it was clear that we need to have the means of production; idealistic thinking doesn’t get us anywhere. In Thinking for Ourselves an appeal to moral reflection is discernible – but on the other hand the book is about implementing strategies that are not necessarily dependent on the moral behaviour of the individual.

HW: Yes, but how are these strategies generated? The title Thinking for Ourselves is not just about thinking for yourself, it’s also about the danger of letting others do the thinking for you, of giving in to the given. And that’s always more comfortable. Political resistance cannot come about without resisting this very temptation. We’re simply no longer in Marx’s position of supposedly having the key to upending the whole thing – to supposedly shaking up ossified conditions. Upholders of the system tend to say ‘we already know everything’. Probably the subversive thing is to say: ‘great that you can spell it all out like that, but I’m not sure at all things work that way.’ This opens up spaces. What will always stick with me from the Pirate Party is the slogan on their posters: ‘you’re the ones with the answers, we’re the ones with the questions.’ In a culture that’s constantly claiming to know how things work, this slogan has explosive political power.


Harald Welzer / Nicholas Czichi-Welzer 1:7,7 (2002), 3D body scans, 3D prints, plaster, scale 1:7,7 …, height: c.25 cm and c.17 cm, Collection Harald Welzer, Berlin.12

Translated by Jane Yager