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Rob Blake @ Centrum, Berlin. An Interview

Rob Blake’s intellectually ambitious, aesthetically low-fi exhibition PMSL runs until 5 February at Berlin’s Centrum project space. The exhibition’s name is an appropriation of the acronymous internet slang expression “pissing myself laughing”. Blake’s exhibition attempts to engage a number of social, economic and spiritual dimensions. William Kherbek spoke with the artist about the aims and realisation of the show.

Will Kherbek: Your exhibition addresses issues of overconsumption, technology, obsolescence and ecology. Could you speak a bit about how the idea for the exhibition evolved for you? Was this realisation of these ideas something that you had long wanted to produce, or did the contents of the exhibition come to you gradually?

Rob Blake: The ideas informing this exhibition were originally much angrier, aiming to communicate specific political ideas. They started to become too literal and unfocused. There were some things I definitely wanted to use – the McDonald’s jingle, mobile phones etc. – and, as I gathered these elements, they started to bounce off each other. From here, a main theme examining current modes of the communication and the reception of messages evolved. I tried to use memes and other pervasive materials from popular culture as analogues with which to explore ideas of misinformation and the deterioration of meaning, which occurs through the process of broadcast and reception.
I was interested in the histories behind certain memes – codes passed from one thing or person to another. My video work “GRAN VALS” references the composition “Gran Vals” by the composer, Francisco Tarrega, a melody that, in 2009, was played out of mobile phones 1.8 billion times a day. Arguably, the original composition, written in 1902, could be thought of as forgotten, only to be replaced by a signifier that points towards the Nokia phone-call.

WK: The work, “CITY BIRD”, consisting of two mobile phones–one attached to a spinning bicycle wheel–ringing each other, engages the lineage of the “found object”–not least in the direct reference to Marcel Duchamp the work contains. Could you discuss how you approach the element of chance in the creation of your works? Also, could you speak about the ways in which the urban territory of Berlin, where curious objects are always appearing on the pavements and assemblages of rubbish frequently take on quasi-aesthetic dimensions, has impacted your approach to producing sculpture?

RB: I’m always on the lookout for materials, and the streets and bins of Berlin are full of exciting things. I also admire the totemic structures of discarded Ikea furniture that grow on street corners like cenotaphs of commercialism. I’d love to make a work with the wavy Ikea mirror; perhaps archaeologists of the future will look back and imagine this object had great meaning to us. I’m interested in cheap materials. They arbitrarily reflect our culture and it’s exciting to inject new meanings into things that have become mundane, reveal something unexpectedly beautiful. Currently, I’m gathering and creating the ingredients that human beings are comprised of – carbon, calcium, iron, water – which are also, incidentally, very cheap materials.

WK: The work also touches on the social dynamics of the algorithm driven culture in which we live. The idea of a mobile phone ringing another only to broadcast the sound of a room in which both mobiles are contained would seem to offer something of a critique of the siloing effect that technology and media create. Do you regard this as one of the themes of the work. If so, why. If not, why not?

RB: This is a theme that connects all the works in the show, and it is a critique of the Internet age. The effect of multiple online platforms blasting media at us day and night is indeed strong, and although we have more information at our fingertips than ever, we feel increasingly powerless.
I’m in favour of information and culture – it’s not that there’s too much information–rather, I think we just haven’t learnt how to read this information as of yet. I wanted the sculpture “CITY BIRD” to hear sounds and create original responses to these stimuli ignorant of the meanings behind them – let’s say, free to sing for the sake of it.
Another theme within the show is that of building something new on the basis of existing structures, to make something free and unshackled from the injustices that have originally set them in motion.

WK: There are elements to the exhibition that many could potentially consider controversial. I’m thinking particularly of the use of live earthworms in “GRAN VALS”, and the use of the sacred word “om” in the exhibition’s accompanying performance, “MANTRIC PHONEMES”. Could you offer some insight into your thinking in including live animals and such cross-cultural reference points in your work, especially with regard to concerns of speciesism and cultural appropriation?

RB: In the “MANTRIC PHONEMES” performance, 12 people came together at Centrum; they were put into pairs and called each other’s phones with loudspeakers on so that a feedback loop was created. Their phones were then held in place within a shrine-like sonic-sculpture comprised of selfie sticks. We sat around this quasi-spiritual totem and chanted the word ‘om’ which travelled through the phone networks and back out into the room itself. We tried to harmonise with this sound feedback, as if we were convening with the digital realm.
Now more than ever, this ancient word om, which describes everything as being connected, has political and scientific relevance. I think it’s a beautiful and complex sound that encapsulates many ideas. Cultural appropriation becomes an issue when it enters into exploitation; but when an idea is referenced sincerely, then cultural cross-pollination is a vital process. Perhaps the most exciting and positive moments for both people and art are when cultures connect over sounds, tastes, colours or concepts, and new ideas and connections spontaneously arise.
Agreed: I used those worms. They had no idea what was going on. They didn’t sign a release form or anything! To be clear: no worms were harmed in this exhibition, they are available to be bought as fish food, and I set them free after filming.
I’d also add that I wanted us to think about the worms in relation to us as humans, to imagine their experience as our own. They seem like a pure embodiment of life, uncomprehending of the machinations behind their environment. Their fleshy, sensitive bodies reminiscent of our own insides: vulnerable to the signals and radiation that these devices emit.

WK: Finally, with regard to the notion of the “performative” character of the mantra–present across the works, but perhaps most wittily deployed in “Fuck Me or Fuck Off”– I’m interested in your understanding of the relationship between regimes of power and language. Language’s infinite capacity for potential expression is constantly under pressure from power systems, be they political, corporate, literary, social or religious. “FMFO” touches on the ways in which language and can impose itself on “nature”, but I wonder if you could speak about how you view the tension between imposed language use and creative language use in your work.

RB: I think in general, language does change, it normally seems to deteriorate, but these changes can lead to new forms. I used textspeak and the Nokia phone font for the publicity for this show, which are both simplified versions of much more elaborate traditions, but each is creative in its own ways. The re-emergence of the hieroglyphic format of emoticons is pure simplification, but it’s not necessarily a dumbing down. The internet has changed communication and language irrevocably, and I think we are yet to fully understand and embrace the new forms that will present themselves
I admit to scrolling through Facebook too much. It’s terrible for my attention span. The politicised walls of Facebook are made up of complex webs of both information and misinformation, underpinned by corporate power. Dominating these walls are headlines that outrage us with terrifying possibilities: often I’m clicking on an article that I realise has nothing to do with its melodramatic headline, and, yet, I can feel incensed and consumed by a constant stream of fear and doom.
Reducing complex events to unfiltered one-liners has proven to be dangerous. Simple statements and images have a powerful off/online presence. In the exhibition, I look at opening up those meanings up. For example, the McDonald’s theme is itself a form of language, a tune that evokes a phrase (‘I’m loving it’), but also tastes, smells, memories and the corporation itself. All of this information is reduced into 5 musical notes – the entire multinational corporation of McDonald’s and the environmental and socio-ethical crimes it commits, made cheery.
So I’m trying to say that communication is a wonderful and exciting thing, but it is always necessary to examine the anatomy of the message – and it is often here where the true meaning can be found.

Rob Blake
Retuerstrasse 7
12053 Berlin
Until 10 February