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RICHARD JOCHUM: CONCEPTUAL ARTIST

Richard Jochum is a true conceptual artist who I met online.  He's currently working mainly with video and video installations, but is really all over the map.  He also uses humor quite a bit in his work which I find refreshing www.richardjochum.net.  So, what inspires this conceptual artist?  Read our chat and find out. 

MICHAEL: Hey Richard, I'm so glad to be talking with you because you're a very strong conceptual artist. Many people find conceptual art challenging because it often doesn't involve tangible objects like paint, canvas or clay, but rather ideas. Does this make the process more difficult for you while you're creating art?

 

RICHARD: Thank you for your interest in my work, Michael. Conceptual art is not just about ideas; yet, it is true that there is no single medium that artists like me are drawing from. Instead, we often try out ideas in different media. Having said that, I often don't know where an idea takes me. Does this make the process all the more difficult? Probably, but at the same time it makes the process more important since the point of departure is different from the moment of arrival. That's the reason why I believe that the process is not only more challenging, but more interesting. At the beginning of each idea, it is not clear what you will learn along the way. And it is always a lot.

 

MICHAEL: I love conceptual work, but I think for many folks, film is probably the closest thing to conceptual as they care to experience. I often hear people say that they don't "get" certain films, so many of them might not even try to "get" full-on conceptual art. I find this strange because I can find a connection to most everything including things I don't completely understand. What do you think?

 

RICHARD: I think one of the most challenging aspects of art is that it reflects our ability to be curious and to see things which we haven't seen yet or known about. In that sense, art has a lot in common with play, with human creativity, etc. Children know this by nature; adults need to be reminded. If people were able to be really open-minded, we could find and see beauty in anything. But because we are often caught up in our daily routines and tunnel vision, art challenges us to open up. I believe this to be the genuine function of art. Now, film is a special case. First of all, American popular culture is all about going to the movies; contemporary or fine art comes WAY after. And then we have film or video in museum settings. That has often proven to be a quite unfortunate combination. A lot of film makers or video artists seem to ignore their audiences as they tend to get so excited about their own imagination. I think there is a widely accepted oblivion about the conditions people will watch their movie in. How often have you walked into a museum or gallery and you bumped into a monitor or screen playing back a movie and you didn't quite know at what time that movie had started, how long it will last and what that scene is in relation to previous or coming scenes?

 

MICHAEL: That happens to me most of the time.  And I'm Packman when it comes to conceptual art even in film.

 

RICHARD: A lot of artists or curators don't quite know how to deploy video or film as a medium especially within the setting of a gallery. Also, with the advent of conceptual art and short movies, our attention span has continually decreased. We want to consume things easily and in digestible portions. That's not just the fault of an impatient audience, but the condition of media in our times; including the effects of YouTube. Just think of it. How long are you ready to wait for an online video to appear if the internet connection is weak?  And for how long will you keep watching if the content is not truly captivating?  As an artist, I have always had a soft spot for audiences and responded to our cultural attention deficit disorder by producing short films mainly, films that are a minute or two and usually tell the story within a few seconds, like creating a single image or situation rather than a narrative. And again, that's a conceptual approach.

 

MICHAEL: Here's something else I find interesting. I think that if conceptual art is executed well and the message is clear, then it doesn't really require explanation by the artist or gallery docent, etc. That's unless the message is intentionally unclear. It's kind of like telling a joke. If you have to explain the joke after you tell it, then forget it! How do you approach this when it comes to your work?

 

RICHARD: I try hard to create works that do not need explanations to be understood. And I like my work to be succinct, to the point and in a sense existential or universally applicable. But I see your point. Whether art does or does not need explanation has always been a contentious issue in the arts. And regardless of my own attempt to speak directly to people through the piece itself, I believe nonetheless, that explanation and art education can add additional layers and depth to a work even if it were already somewhat clear. Explanation can be an additional entrance door for people who otherwise might not understand. We see what we know; a short text, a poignant title, reading up, etc., can improve our ability to see. I think there are a lot of people who are interested in the arts, but intimidated by it.  It's true; art can be intimidating, but no matter at which level you look at it, it's the most condensed moment of creativity by a person who may have worked for a very long time on either that particular work or on a whole career before creating that distinct piece.

 

MICHAEL: And that's certainly a strong argument for explanation. If you take six months to work on a difficult project, there better be an explanation.

 

RICHARD: That's funny.  Yes, there is nothing wrong with explanation as long as it doesn't replace or destroy the joke.  In that sense you are absolutely right. But then, if we look into the past, we can see that the 20th century brought a great deal of professionalization to the arts. It has really become an art world and certainly an industry with new professions coming up, the independent curator, the museum educator, the arts administrator, the curriculum designer, etc.  Art has come into its own; it's a business and industry in its own right. No wonder there is a lot of text. Just look at our interview; that's more text!  I for one believe in never-ending learning and the use of research, even for art practice.  Even as a teacher, I usually ask my students not only to create a piece of art, but to work on their intention from the beginning. In order to do so, it helps them to come up with text. Ideally, this would result in an artist's statement for people who want to know more, but if they don't read it, they still get a lot out of the piece.

 

MICHAEL: Based upon the small amount I've seen on your website, your work seems to be communal and community-oriented. What influences your work and how would you describe your body of work thus far?

 

RICHARD: That's the question I get asked a lot and still fear sometimes. It's like putting myself in a box or jumping out of my box and looking at it; not easy for any of us as long as we continue to be creative. I was trained as a sculptor and media artist, but have developed works in almost every form of the arts, from artist books to land art. I genuinely like expanding my practices into new fields. This reflects my curiosity as well as my belief in the role of the artist as a mediator and communicator between audiences, ideas, and different types of media. There is so much specialization in our highly compartmentalized and mediated world. If we look at bio-art for example, one of the many fields I am involved in, we can see a society that looks at science and doesn't know how to deal with its findings. The scientists are looking back and wish for more, but an ethics commission tells them right from wrong. With the help of images or projects, art can become a mediator in this with images working like envoys facilitating the crossing unknown territory. This is how I would like to understand my work; as an attempt to overcome the compartmentalization in which we find ourselves immersed technologically, scientifically, and existentially. In doing so, I continue to find helpful markers and influences in people like Bruce Nauman or Bill Viola or Alfredo Jaar or Joseph Beuys, to name a few. I could point to others: writers, philosophers, or my godfather who influenced me through his open mind, his serenity and the combination of being erudite and having a sense of humor. And in some sense these traits have become markers of my work, too.  As you mention, the communal aspect of my work, I think there are artists who want to be in touch with their audiences and others who don't. I care about the audience and often make people participants in my pieces; be it the Twenty Angry Dog video and sound installation, the Rosary | Sibha as a Communal Sculpture, or the international art project "dis-positiv". I want to know what people think and how they respond and what they have to say. And I believe audiences can help us become better artists.

 

MICHAEL: I find it interesting that you've mentioned humor.  It's not often that I see humor in art, but when I do, it's very refreshing. I think many artists are afraid to show humor because they fear their work might not be taken seriously. What do you think?

 

RICHARD: I understand their concern but don't share it. Humor prevents us from taking ourselves too seriously and in that it's healthy, especially in an art world that is troubled with a lot of narcissism. Humor is also profoundly social and makes viewers and art work build a connection. I will never forget how I had the most beautiful ride in a cab in Cairo laughing along with a driver whose language I barely spoke. My few phrases in Arabic and a common sense of humor was enough to make this a real encounter.

 

MICHAEL: Video seems to be your medium of choice right now. What is it about video that has you so preoccupied? I thought you also painted. Perhaps I'm wrong.

 

RICHARD: You are right, I've done a few paintings at the very beginning of my career, but most are stowed away and only from time to time do I go back and add another rather conceptual painting to the storage in order to have them present all at once one day. I did a lot of artist books in the '90s and discovered video much later. However, I often compare the two media and think of them as an odd couple. Like books, videos have a title, a beginning and an end, but most importantly, a timeline. I like the dramatic effect that the timeline offers.  In the case of books, the turning of the pages; in the case of video: the irreversible continuation of a narrative. As a medium, it's more visible than books and speaks to the visual culture of our time. But despite the fact that a lot of people connect my work to video as a medium, I busy myself with so many different projects simultaneously that even friends close to me have difficulties to follow. Video has become a bigger focus since I've been teaching video on and offline. And that certainly expanded my practice and made me think about video as a field. Having said that, I still remember how a video artist, who I must have met almost 20 years ago, expressed a great deal of frustration with the medium being enclosed in a case and put away for special screening purposes.  He found it inadequate to built a career on, but I believe this has changed thanks to the advancements in internet and digital technologies. Video has become much more accessible, ubiquitous, and allows for a variety of distribution channels and modes of presentation: as a single or multi channel screening, in a festival, as an interactive video and sound installation, through net-based platforms, or through video mapping and 3D projection, a technology with which I've gotten involved just recently.  Also, you rarely have people just watch a video by themselves; video is often consumed in a group and in this has a performance function. But I also see downsides of the medium; video can be quite cold and doesn't leave the realm of the virtual. In comparison with sculpture, video misses that unique comfort and silence of being an object. Even if it is presented through an intriguing picture frame, it will never just become an object; instead it will stay attached to the context of its showing and a timeline; weightless, without a life of its own, on an electrical life-line, a shadow or vampire, half-alive, half-dead.

 

MICHAEL: Where do you teach? At Columbia? I would think being an art professor has its challenges. Is it possible to teach someone art or how to be an artist?

 

RICHARD: I teach Intermedia at the art and art education program of the Teachers College branch of Columbia. My assignments are part time which leave me room to pursue my own studio practice. This helps me to keep my passion for both: the art making and the teaching. Now, can being an artist be taught? Only to some extent. It's hard to measure success in the creative field or in teaching, but I know that art is not just a gift, but also a learnable skill and social construction. In that, there is much to be learned and taught. What makes people good artists then, one might ask? I think the togetherness of a somewhat conceptual approach and a real dialog with the medium. To give an example: The French sculptor Auguste Rodin created some exceptional and some less great sculptures; those which are not that special were done with not much more than a high level of craftsmanship and those which ended up to be extraordinary are rooted in a vision or concept. What makes a teacher a good teacher? The same: the combination of a strong mind and a real dedication, the ability to be analytical and inspiring. Joseph Beuys was famously both, a very inspiring artist and teacher. Similar John Baldessari, who hasn't just been a great artist, but a talented teacher; talented because he could integrate his teaching into his art making. Some of his videos show how he has been able to weave his students into the process; that's a rare skill and refreshing to see because a lot of artist-teachers start with the compromise and therefore let down the artist or the other way around. I see artist-teachers who have no pedagogical skills; you have to like people and audiences to be a good teacher or a good artist, I think. There's something else to be said: Teaching and learning is by no means exclusively owned by certain locations, such as schools and colleges; it can take place in myriads of ways. If we people were more empowered, we could be so much more enlightened. Can empowerment be learned? Can enlightenment be taught? These are questions that are not entirely different from the one you've just asked. These are questions that each of us has to address if we care for ourselves and for each other.

 

MICHAEL: Aren't you from Austria? Do you see any differences between how Americans and Europeans regard contemporary art?

 

RICHARD: Yes, and I still exhibit a lot in Europe. I do see a few differences.  The American scene seems more conservative; the European one more conceptual.  Also, art in the U.S. is more of a commodity and in the general public's eye an appendix to the market; in Europe, you still see more influence coming from the state, more funding. But the similarities are outweighing the differences since the art world has become global, particularly from a Western point of view. Instilled by publishing houses like Taschen, which is an interesting phenomenon, we can find a widely accepted list or canon of contemporary artists whose work is being bought and exhibited simultaneously in various big museums across the planet.  If you like, this is the McDonaldization of the art industry and indicates how much art and stocks have in common.

 

MICHAEL: What are your interests outside of art? Are there any things that have no direct connection with art that inspire you?

 

RICHARD: Some of my fellow artists at the studio building were talking amongst themselves wondering about what I would be doing if I weren't an artist; one of them reportedly told them, if I weren't an artist, I would be an artist. I was laughing when I heard that, but found it also an interesting observation from outside. It reflects that the border between art and life as I see it is translucent and permeable with numerous and continual crossings. I can't really separate the two. For example, I love the inspiration that I get from hiking, yet walking and nature is part of what informs my art; I am a passionate cook, but then again, I started incorporating food into my artistic practice. I have always been rather curious about things, including philosophy, literature, or academic books, but then again, I find that art and research is clearly intertwined. My family still makes fun of me over the fact that I dissected an alarm clock and rendered it dead when I was 8 years old because I wanted to know what makes that arm, which happened to be a Mickey Mouse, move. This curiosity and the fact that the connection between art and life I guess is part of being a conceptual artist, everything ties back into each other.

 

MICHAEL: Finally Richard, What do you want your body of work thus far to say and say about who you are?

 

RICHARD: Now this is a question that actually makes me think about my previous answers and whether I had been either too abstract, too academic, or up in the clouds. I hope, not. I think much of what one does for work, no matter what type of work, tells a story about our sensibilities. I've been collaborating lately with a number of people on a 20,000 square foot video projection and as exciting as the technology involved and the magnitude of the project had been, it was a difficult process and not as successful as it could have been had we shared similar sensibilities. As an experience, it made me realize how much I care for making meaning versus technology or production size. I don't think one can make art without dedication, commitment, and loyalty and most importantly, without a certain type of sensibility. So what does my work say about me? I don't think I want my work to say much about myself because that's not where I see the focus. (I see it) rather as a tool to show a passion for the human condition and our struggle as living beings in a world that's not perfect, but perfect enough to be in. I read Leibniz when I was a kid and I still remember how I was taken by his claim that we live in the most perfect of all possible worlds. I didn't always agree with it politically and with regards to existing inequalities. But if art can help us to be open-minded, curious and alive, to embrace our human struggle and accept what's around us to look at it and to deal with it, well that's the type of work I'm aiming for.

MICHAEL: Thanks Richard.  I've enjoyed our chat.

For more about Richard Jochum and his work, check out his website at www.richardjochum.net. 



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