INTRODUCTION: ronnie s on second thought – video essay 2014 (available on vimeo)
By Wencke Qvale
Ronnie Sluik is the birth name of an artist born in 1961 in the outskirts of Enschede ca 500 meters from the border of Germany, who after having made a career as an artist under the name of “Sluik” decided to cut short his career as an artist and set himself on the school bench once again, enrolling as a master student of The Bergen Academy of Art and Design on the Western coast of Norway – now under the name of “ronnie s”.
As the story above of the artist’s act of self-proletarianization already suggests Ronnie is an artist of a marked political bent or conviction, and as is common with intellectuals of that frame of mind, is a man with a strong social commitment.
A place where this commitment is especially clearly demonstrated in the present video (On second thought), is in the series of scenes that take place in narrow corridors, some in the basement of what seems like huge buildings, among them Bergen Kunstmuseum, and others in an industrial building of the Bergen Academy of Art. In these scenes a man (always played by the artist) of rather humble appearance, wearing a simple narrow brimmed hat and always sitting on a chair in a frontal position, occurs. In some of these scenes another man (also played by him) is added to the left. This man is standing in profile and often pointing in a rather impolite way at the sitting man (i.e. the sitting man’s empty place) asking him critical questions.
A most telling example among these basement scenes is where the sitting person after a long period of silence suddenly (as if in an outburst of desperation) utters in a subdued voice: I also do mountains [Part 3 (00:01)]. More clearly it cannot be stated how low behind his standards an artist of to-day is willing – or forced – to go in order to please the marked.
The importance of failure
There is however a clear limit as to how far an artist can or ought to go in humiliating himself without losing the last rest of integrity. In Sluiks video this limit is drawn at the point where the commercial ideal is turned inward and the artist’s role is reduced to that of satisfying the public’s superficial desire for the flawless work. Against this ideal of aesthetic perfection Sluik underlines the importance of failure. The artist, Sluik says, must be:
the first to desist from such aesthetic automatism, the first to admit that to be an artist is to fail as no other dare fail, that failure is his world and the shrink from it desertion, art and craft, good housekeeping, living [Samuel Beckett about Bram van Velde – 1934]. [Part 1 (7:53)]
It goes without saying that this is not an art about being an original artist creating beautiful objects. It is rather an art whose ultimate aim is communication with an audience and whose main objects accordingly are ideas or thoughts. And even the thoughts presented here are not original, but consist almost totally of words and sentences produced by others and then picked up or “sampled” by the artist. As is suggested in his own term “found thoughts”, an expression which in its turn weighs heavily on Duchamp’s “objets trouvés” (“found objects”). And in consistence with his programme this very ideal of being unoriginal is formulated through another person’s voice, in this case through the [remixed] voice of Mark Twain:
I did not create the materials out of which these videos are formed. They are odds and ends of thoughts, impressions, feelings gathered unconsciously from a thousand books […] and the hearts and brains of centuries of ancestors. [Mark Twain: What is a Man – remix] [Part 4 (0:26)]
A teaching project
But the aim of the artist is not fully described by communication with the audience. Sluik knows that if he is to succeed, i.e. if his art is to make a difference in society, it must reach beyond the ordinary audience attending to art. And as an alternative audience does not yet exist, he has more or less to create it himself. This means he has to act in a way like Joseph Beuys, with whom he has an unmistakable iconic likeness and whom he cites as follows:
Teaching is my greatest piece of art and the rest is waste product […] objects are not very important any more. I want to get to the origin of matter, to the thought behind it. [Ronnie reading Beuys before a tutorial with Eamon O’Kane] [Part 4 (08:08)]
The emancipated audience
Or, to put it in Jacques Rancière’s words, the artist’s task is to emancipate the spectator:
Essentially, what an emancipated person can do is to be an emancipator: to give, not the key to knowledge, but the consciousness of what intelligence can do when it considers itself equal to any other and considers any other equal to itself. [The Emancipated Spectator – Rancière (2011)] [Part 8 (02:10)]
By this formulation Rancière at the same time opens up for the spectator’s own contribution to the emancipative project in a radical sense, i.e. by making the two parties, the artist and the audience, almost equal with respect to their contribution to the emancipating project.
The unreliable audience
But Ronnie Sluik is in no way naïve. He does not quite agree especially with this last definition of the emancipating project. He certainly recognizes his debt to Beuys and Rancière in the sense that he sees himself as some sort of teacher or upbringer of the ignorant and as such a creator of an audience. At the same time he knows that he can never trust the audience – the audience being an easy victim of commercial strategies. The only authority he may possibly rely on is the inner audience, i.e. his own power to evaluate what he is doing and how it works.
Consequently the audience according to Sluik – in contrast to Rancière – must never be offered a position equal to the artist. Only by preventing this possibility he is able to avoid a situation where the artist is reduced to a figure in the service of commercial culture, i.e. in the service of the market.
This situation where the artist is dealing with an unreliable (or inauthentic) audience is mostly dealt with in the aforementioned corridor scenes in the basement. And it is introduced for the first time when in addition to the sitting Ronnie and his standing questionnaire (in profile to the left) is added a third figure (in profile to the right). This figure presents himself to the sitting figure in the following way, “I am Ronnie. I am your expected audience” [Part 8 (01:42)]. In a very significant scene where his two interlocutors doubt his reliability and discuss how to get rid of him, this figure suddenly turns towards the person looking at the video, and with an empty, careless smile on his face waves the spectator goodbye.
The unreliable artist:
Faced with the prospect of the unreliable or inauthentic spectator ronnie however does not give up. He has certainly learnt that he cannot trust the audience of the outer world. And as this audience has introduced himself as himself – i.e. as ronnie s – he has learnt that he cannot even trust his inner audience. Or to put it in another way, he cannot trust himself – as his rational self cannot trust his irrational self – there is always a possibility that the one may outdo the other.
But Ronnie has a plan. This human doubleness and the fundamental lack of trust that follows, is not necessarily an encumbrance. It can also be turned into an advantage if handled in the right way – i.e. if deliberately staged by himself like an actor before an audience in the theatre. Sluik knows that if he is going to avoid that the audience changes into the inauthentic audience who may let him down, the best way of doing that is to arrange it so that the audience cannot rely on him – at least not one hundred percent. There ought to be a rest, a point where the spectator looses confidence in the artist and begins to doubt. In this space between confidence and doubt the artist has his great opportunity. By playing the unreliable artistic subject he has the chance to deceive his audience, thereby keeping the same audience in his power.
Theatre as artistic research
And what is more, this way of acting, performing the unreliable artistic subject, not only permits him, the artist, to deceive his audience. This strategy at the same time permits him to emancipate his audience, letting the spectator go behind the artist’s back and get a glimpse of his strategy, i.e. of his “double nature” acting as his inauthentic self. And this he does nb without letting go of his authority vis-à-vis the spectator making him equal to himself, like Rancière proposes.
It even permits the artist to have a glimpse of the same strategy, thereby laying the premises for artistic research. And the clue to this double strategy of emancipating manipulation and critical-aesthetic (self) examination is theatre:
So theatre becomes the main device in this research; it becomes almost synonymous with the artistic research because it enables us to cast (throw) a reserved and critical view onto our objective. On top of this, it can even assist us catch sight of the action of this view being cast. [Stephan Dillemuth: “A Proposal for Research”, 1999] [Part 2 (10:15)]
What happened to the unreliable artist and his inauthentic audience?
In the next chapter (9: “Ignore master ronnie s”) we get the answer to this question. In the opening scene the unreliable (or obstructive) spectator is dead. He is sitting on the chair in an uncomfortable position with sprawling legs and holes from many knife-stabs through his forehead. The artist alias master ronnie s is still “breathing”, although evidently in a miserable state, his breast pumping heavily as with great pains and his legs spastically jerking. His courage is gone and he is clinging to life in the most pitiable way. How far below his standards he has fallen is disclosed in his extremely disillusioned exclamation:
Why should there be anything more?
The moment after he has uttered these fatal words, the spectator suddenly comes to life for a moment, and removing the mask that has hitherto covered his face, turns towards the viewer with a peculiar knowing expression on his face.
The pope and the cardinal
In the next scene we get hint of the background for this sinister gesture. Now a radical change of scenery has taken place even if the formal structure is the same. Here the figure of the artist is replaced by a person named “a pope” sitting on a rather worn reclining chair placed on a podium, functioning as his throne, while the questioner is replaced by “a cardinal” acting as his second in command. These are figures more or less easily recognizable as representatives of the Official Authorities, in this case most likely the School Authorities. In an extremely uncanny scene they perform the most cynical outlook on the world mocking “master ronnie s” for what they disdainfully call “his sincerity”, i.e. his uncompromising will as an artist to get to the bottom of things and disclose the truth.
And what happened to “artistic research”?
From now on master ronnie s seems to have lost all confidence in the school system. Gone is his faith in his own emancipating project as well and the fundament it stands on: knowledge. Now he understands that lack of knowledge is not a condition to be defeated or overcome (as in Rancière’s theory of emancipation of the audience), but an approach to art that is institutionalized by the school authorities themselves –and whose most telling manifestation is the so called “artistic research”, i.e. what in the School system is called by that name. Which means a kind of artistic activity guaranteed by the school authorities where nothing really is at stake – and therefore redundant – acting as a parody upon the real research performed in normal critical artistic practice.
As a consequence of the events referred to above, the relations between the three figures has changed dramatically. An irritable atmosphere has arisen and from now on the three figures are often quarrelling heavily. In addition their roles are partly reversed. Now it is the questioner who is the person mostly in control and who even in a rather moving scene tries to comfort the artist assuring him of his own unique worth. But his praise sounds false and hollow, also to himself. There seems to be no redemption from the catastrophe that has occurred. Welt Schmerz rules the scenery.
Lack of knowledge as a refuge
And so in the moment of his deepest disillusionment the artist learns the bitter truth that lack of knowledge is not necessarily a disadvantage, it may also be an advantage. It may function as a refuge or asylum, i.e. a place where one can get away from the world and enjoy one’s “separation” (or liberation) from “both the capacity to know and the power to act”. This is anyway how it functions in the case of Clarice Lispector. She had been married to an ambassador and had lived a life in great luxury but left her husband and began a life on her own as a writer, ending her life in deep, unspeakable loneliness, seriously injured by a fire accident caused by her cigarette, that almost cost her life, completely disillusioned:
I do not know much but there are certain advantages on not knowing. Like virgin territory, the mind is free of preconceptions. Everything I do not know forms the greater part of me: this is my largesse. And with this I understand everything. The things I do not know constitute my truth. [Clarisse Lispector] [Part 9 (03:48)]
Speaking from the tomb
Or, as she puts it in reply to a question if the act of creating did not have a heeling effect upon her mind, in the sense that every new work made her feel like “born again”:
Well … for now I am dead … we‘ll see if I can be born again. For now I am dead …
I am speaking from my tomb [Part 9 (6:14)]
The video ends by showing the artist’s chair turned upside down and its chassis with wheels turning around its own axis in a movement which is as absurd as without purpose or function, what so ever. In the scene shown immediately before we find the perfect match of this maneuver in the sentence uttered by the questioner after performing a couple of rather clumsy jumps to reach the ceiling in a vain effort to instill in him a tiny little hope for the future:
Is there a world so lost from the matter as the art world?