Introduced through a conversation between artist Vasilis Patmios Karouk and curator Nadja Argyropoulou
Nadja Argyropoulou: Let’s start with the title.“The Dangans”. It sounds like it comes from a sitcom like The Simpsons, or a video game.
Vasilis P. Karouk: It could be. Actually, it is a tampering with the name of “The Dangan game”. I read about it a little after your invitation for the show and, as with many chance encounters on the web, it redirected my approach for this work. “Dangan” is the Chinese word for record, archive. This permanent dossier, and the related archival system – supported by thousands of local state bureaus – registers the life “performance and attitudes” of each Chinese citizen, and has been used by the State (mostly in and since the Maoist era) for the implementation of strict control, and subsequent reward and punishment. Millions of dangans make the ‘big data’ stored in a centralised repository for citizen information to be used and abused. More recently, and within the idiosyncratic version of Chinese capitalism, dangan has shifted to a kind of gaming system that involves banking exchanges, socio-psychological services, the moulding of ethics via a point system that manages every social function, from work promotion to flight restrictions, from tax breaks to public shaming, from health insurance rights to career limitations.
Needless to say, the Sinosphere is not alone in this; we all participate in data-manipulation today, even through mere web surfing, smart phone/credit card use, social media interactions. We are all, in one way or the other, characters in a global game of monitoring, crediting, rating. Under one view or the other, we all are The Dangans.
NA: To credit and discredit is an exercise of power, a kind of malfeasance that constitutes one of the most basic ceremonies of organized societies. And we concede to this magic of the state and its seduction. The ontology of indebtedness in its entanglement with the evolution of and access to technology creates a sense of intense fear in precarious subjects. We avoid thinking, confronting, knowing, challenging the realities that emerge through our inexorable, infinite linking. We experience ‘the cloud’ but do not really see it for the hungry industry that it is, we confuse illuminating things and computational logic, with real, deep and wide seeing/feeling as James Bridle eloquently describes in “The New Dark Age”.
I join him, and others, in asking: If we have to think anew, in a radically different mode, how should we re-enchant our tools? How to make thunderstones out of our hammers? How to embrace darkness, uncertainty, guardianship? Furthermore, how do we resolve to live in brokenness, in being broke? Your work has always dealt with agency in this respect.
VPK: I would say that we have to be vigilant, to think the ways that every game is rigged and go beyond. Art is the place where we can do this. I do not subscribe to Luddism, but I believe that some machines should be broken and remade. And by machines I also mean the various kind of machinations at work. The current state of surveillance and control, the emerging biopolitics as we witness them within the pandemic crisis is an example. The monstrous monopolies – in trade, information, education, culture – are something we must scrutinize in every part of the world and in every system. China is just one example that already demonstrates, shows the creeping, often silent manner of reform.
NA: So, in a kind of blind vision we allow puppet masters to pull the strings. Tell me about the characters in your animation for this project. We can see characters cast in roles within previous works of yours ,like “Motivo” (Motif), shown at the 1st Athens Biennale in 2007 and “Troades” (Trojan Women), made for the HELL AS Pavilion exhibition at the Palais de Tokyo in 2012.
VPK: I am very interested in performed actions. The most important element in “The Dangans” is a ritual of self-destruction in which all characters are obliviously engaged. They cut and destroy their life-supporting systems, they dance to the chopping sound, they guard this function of death.
Each figure is made by and through the art works that you selected at the ACG Art collection. I treat them as raw material, appropriated and remoulded in new forms. Central is a ceremonial circling sun inspired by the masks of Gerard Haas, the figure holding the saw is made out of the Sklar signal pistol, the figure with the axe and the guardian on the back are transmutations of the “Mount Hymettus Saint Francis of Assisi” by Frances Rich. The dancing creature is a virtual collage of limbs and awkward attitudes inspired by the “Cats” musical and meant as a critical hint to the apathy demonstrated by those who are well fed, protected, secured, entertained, those who live in cynical disregard of the wider injustices and hardships. Through this creature I also consider the problematic, excessive misrepresentation of transgenderism in contemporary forms of popular culture.
The space itself is a hybrid that emerged out of a medieval temple floor and a talismanic compass with runic inscriptions; its supporting axis is actually an elongated leg, part of the limbs that are being boiled close by. There is a lot of amalgamation and a long process of web roaming, file-collecting and processing, various animated materials that question the widespread use of animation today, its roots in animism and the long history involved.
NA: This is a form of speculative fabulation and it is errant, quite irreverent, anti-hierarchical. It is very true that when taken out of the aesthetic field animation becomes less of an abstracted consideration and turns into the transformation of realities, the negotiation and ordering of the social, “an ontological battleground… at the frontier of colonial modernity” as Anselm Franke has brilliantly demonstrated in the series of exhibitions and publications (the most recent of which is an online project), titled “Animism”.
What I can see in this work, same as with your paintings and early videos (the future-tech that you researched), is a rough, a raw approach to figure-making, no regard for high-end rendering; it as though everything is coming out of the chaos of elements, like energy is convulsed into matter, flesh apprehended through hues and nuances and outlines are eluded because of the shadowy cosmos. I think of invention here: a kind of making that always escapes what it formulates and names, the same limits that it creates. It interests me a lot because I think it is the best way to avoid ”representation”.
VPK: What you describe is ”painting” as I understand it. I am not interested in dictating anything, in making the monumental. This is why I cannot adhere to the whole issue of styles. I research, for example, tribalism, old and contemporary, via the materials themselves, be it paint, animation, codes, shapes. I research fundamentals through motifs, gestures, spasms and re-occurrences. The cube in which my figures reside in this work is a shape that alludes to many things: from social structures, to ideologies, to related architectures and art displaying systems (e.g., “the white-cube” of modernity), to codification processes, to assembling strategies. My initial plan was to organize Τhe Dangans according to the rule of three and a series of multiplications. This reflects my interest in the contrast between finite and infinite, in numbers and their own rituals.
NA: You have devised games, real, sculptural, and virtual, for online use. We have in the past discussed Levi-Strauss’s distinction between games, which move from the symmetry of common rules toward the asymmetry of one winner, and rituals which perform predetermined actions in order to make everyone a winner. Modern economy and market strategies have recently tried to blend the two into a new form of a corporate, ritualistic, self-regenerative gaming, a form of role-playing that spikes corporate sectarianism with the thrill of storytelling. The soundscape in “The Dangans” is set through the voice of one of those inspirational speakers.
VPK: Simon Sinek was another web chance encounter of mine. I listened to some of his TED talks and read his theories on how to hone interpersonal skills, how to avoid toxic personalities at work, how leaders should perform in order to inspire everyone to take action and establish trust. Trained as an ethnographer, currently a known writer and teacher at Columbia University, Sinek has elaborated the idea of the Golden Circle as “a naturally occurring pattern, grounded in the biology of human decision making”. I found his theories funny and exhilarating at the same time; some of them sound correct, reassuring, functional. I was impressed by how easily they could be perceived as obvious, common sense, humanely progressive, organic even.
NA: Soft philosophy, soft anthropology, soft signs channelled in corporate lingo, made into a mock version of sociality with messianic undertones, ersatz profundity and trust-building exercises designed and customized for team-empowerment.
The managerial re-determines antagonism as rivalry-in-chivalry and attempts to imitate the performative in the process, with various grotesque outcomes in my view. Manipulation is often mistaken for benevolent performativity under the guise of smart knowledge-technologies. It is crucial that we reclaim meanings co-opted by the new, ‘smart’ market. Subversive humor is one way to go.
VPK: Indeed. I used this audio in order to undermine the ceremonial, the archaic, the dramatic feel in the visual part of “The Dangans”. To turn the joke on it, on us, on easily consumed recipes, on certainties. The business world is a major part of life and we should be attentive to its workings whatever they are. For me Sinek’s take on productivity was a trigger to reconsider the gamification of communication, what it now includes and excludes, the various scales (personal, national, global) at play. It is not possible to think in terms of utopias any more by the very fact that variations in scale and quality make effective networking, (the kind that is just and rewarding for all) impossible. I think of how effective pedagogies are unevenly distributed and shared in this huge world of ours. There is no magic key to be placed in the lock though. There is a long process of trial and error. The circle of life is actually made by infinite smaller circles that generate other circles. My work in general examines this rather opaque multiplicity. “The Dangans” is a dense sketch of, an instance in, this thought process.
HD video, 2.03 min in loop
created by Vasilis Patmios Karouk
soundscape: natural sounds, parts of a speech by Simon Sinek and part of a score written by James P. Johnson and John Williams for The Star Wars.
Work commissioned by curator Nadja Argyropoulou for the project: “Is everybody in? The ceremony is about to begin”