I met up with Julius von Bismarck at the CAC café in Vilnius, where he came for an interview with me, initiated by the National Gallery of Art in Vilnius, as part of his exhibition entitled Citynature: Vilnius and Beyond (2017). Julius was wearing dark lenses so he couldn’t see me or the things around me. This was not because he did not like me or the café. It was a part of his project on hibernating bats in the suburbs of Vilnius and, actually, he was pretending to be a bat himself…
Mindaugas Gapševičius: Julius, I’m guessing that you’ve studied for quite some time?
Julius von Bismarck: Yeah. Like 10 years or something.
MG: I noticed in your biography that you studied in the classes of Olafur Eliasson and Joachim Sauter. I find those two figures to be pretty different from one another. I wanted to ask you if you took anything away from studying under them. Was it useful to take their classes?
JB: Yeah, I can’t imagine a better education. It was a very good mix because they are quite opposite in some senses and very similar in others. They have a completely different approach to abstraction and how to communicate with a person who looks at your pieces. Joachim Sauter had a direct approach and cared a lot about precision, whilst Olafur Eliasson also cared a lot about precision, but had much more of an abstract approach. So it was very good for me to learn these different approaches. I didn’t necessarily like Sauter’s straight concepts you could put into one sentence. Instead, I wanted to make things that were not so directly understandable, that had deeper layers. Back then, I actually wanted to make a piece with the sun; just a huge sun projected onto a wall through the lenses. Someone told me to have a look at Eliasson’s work. I didn’t like his sun so much, but also not many people were interested in my sun because it lacked a message behind it. For me, the sun didn’t need a message, the sun was already a message in itself and just looking at it in a different way was already an invaluable piece of art. When Olafur came to Berlin, I joined his class because I wanted to learn how to make a piece that is just the sun itself, and have it still exist as a piece of art.
MG: Did you finally make your sun?
JB: No, I didn’t. I couldn’t make the sun anymore because he had made it before me, despite his being a bit different as I imagine. I still like my sun much more than his. At some point, I hope to do it, but I need to wait for the right opportunity as it requires intense optics, and they are expensive.
MG: So your work would not be a projection in this case, but would be some kind of object in itself?
JB: No, it is going to be a projection; a direct projection of the sun. I would collect sunlight and project it onto a wall. It could be like making a camera obscura but with a projection of the sun.
MG: But wouldn’t you end up with a very weak image of the sun? It would just be a white sphere or white circle on the wall.
JB: Camera obscura is not so good in terms of how much light is going to be projected, but if you used a giant microscope, you’d get an extremely bright image of the sun on the wall which you could then apply some filters to. For example, you could put the h-alpha line filter, a certain spectrum in which the sun has a really nice image, kind of like red boiling lava where you can see explosions within it. Eventually you would have light being viewed from the sun, saturated in a red boiling kind of aesthetic.
MG: That sounds pretty cool, I really hope you are able to realise that project someday. Now, I propose moving away from your studies onto your art practice.
Have you ever heard about Bruno Latour’s Actor-Network Theory, the idea of interaction between living and non-living things? And of course it could go further into other speculative discourses by the likes of Graham Harman, Ray Brasier and in the writings of Quentin Meillassoux. I wanted to refer that context to your older work entitled Nature is Punishing Us (2011–2012), a photo in which a guy is sitting on a rock and punishing it. This context of interaction between living and non-living entities is very interesting for me, and your comment on it would be more than welcome.
JB: I would see the mountain as a symbol of nature which was pretty abstract, but was directly inspired from historical writing. I do not know how much truth there is in it, but there was a story of a Persian king named Xerxes I who built a bridge over the Bosphorus. When he had completed building the bridge, a strong storm came and destroyed it. Angered by this, Xerxes sent his troops to punish the ocean. Thinking about this story, I thought, well, ok, it was a different situation back then and now nature is punishing us. On the other hand we don’t tend to get very angry about nature because of other reasons, and I am interested in those reasons. I question why nature now has a different meaning from the ones it used to have, and by punishing it or trying to punish it (punish oceans, mountains, valleys, forests and so on) I was raising the question of relation between it and myself. This is because if you punish something, it expands your relationship to it. I am interested in that process, the role of gods, because it is used to be a god who controlled us and nature, we all are guests in the ‘kingdom of God’.
MG: This is what visual artists do I guess. For me, your art is more about interaction between actors within the environment and not about objects: some activities are given for mountain or nature or God, so the context you work with, I guess, includes everything from God, objects, humans or whatever it is behind the Actor-Network Theory. I can also trace it in your works like Clockwork (2014–2015), Desert now (2016), Forest apparatus (2013) among other works.
JB: I see myself, and then there is the outside, the relationship between myself and the environment. It can be with humans, it can be with animals, it can be with a city, or it can be whatever is changing through the arts. Arts have always influenced me on this. Now it is about deserts and humans. So it is about the relationship between the desert and me. I have this personal relationship to the desert and I try to update it.
MG: Do you consider yourself a part of nature?
JB: Yes, I think there is no difference between myself and nature. I take the pretty classical philosophical point of view, that everything is one. I am not an animalist; there is a difference between living and non-living things, of course. We all share this planet, but we are definitely the only ones with the power to change it, and we are changing it. So the planet is already completely humanised. If you would try to say that nature is only nature if it is not touched by humans, it wouldn’t be true. Nature doesn’t exist anymore, and I am not interested in this cliché of untouched nature. I am interested in truths or stupidities which build on this idea of bad humans living in polluted cities and clean nature, and bad humans eating happy animals just for fun. This is a cliché which I think of as being completely stupid. But it is growing, and more and more people believe in it too. People change their lives because they don’t believe in God anymore. They believe in this wrong cliché of nature instead. And I am trying to destroy that cliché.
MG: Do you mean basically that the separation between God and nature doesn’t exist?
JB: Yes, how can it exist if the atomic power plants humans have created have polluted huge areas causing nature to be affected? Without judging this, I’m simply saying that nature is heavily influenced by us.
MG: Is the polluted nature the context you are working on here in Vilnius? As far as I can remember, the idea for the Citynature exhibition in Vilnius has been to think of the city as having been altered by human beings, right? How would you see your work within this context for the exhibition?
JB: I’m not sure for this exhibition because it isn’t a solo show. I just have a piece in the exhibition. I don’t know how it’s going to be like because I have never exhibited together with other artists. I also don’t know much about them or their work either. But for me, I am trying to establish the city as a space used by other species and not by us. In this case, I have chosen to work with bats that are using human built structures as their homes. There are a lot of animals living in the same environment that cannot live outside the city, like pigeons that I’ve worked with before. These are animals that cannot survive without humans because they need the city landscape to survive. But they are still wild animals that don’t listen to what we tell them. And for me, that is a nice symbol for today’s nature. So I am trying to make work that shows a bat’s point of view on the city.
MG: What was your experience in the tunnel where bats have hibernated?
JB: Well, it was interesting to see it. It was one-hundred percent a human environment without any visible influence by the bats. It felt like a pigeon’s home with a heap of shit on the floor, which smelt pretty bad. Pigeons are kind of messy inhabitants of human space, that’s one of the reasons why humans dislike them. And there isn’t much of a similar cliché when it comes to bats because they don’t shit on our roofs or monuments so we don’t have any negative feelings towards them. It’s interesting. They don’t eat our food, they eat mosquitoes which is actually convenient for us. So it is kind of our friend that we don’t see.
MG: Why did you choose to work with bats? It could have also been possible to work with plants, let’s say, which also have some kind of relation to humans.
JB: Animals are dumb and plants are even dumber. So I’d rather work with a cleverer species. That is, by the way, the title of my catalogue ‘Animals are dumb and plants are even dumber’.
MG: Did you not present the catalogue at your exhibition in Berlin entitled Approximately 3 Dimensions (2016)? If I remember correctly, there was one.
JB: Yes, indeed.
MG: I found the catalogue to be nicely shaped – from a designer’s point of view.
JB: Yes, I was happy with it. It’s difficult to make a catalogue. It’s a lot of work, and you have to work with the designer. The designer has his own vision, and you have your ideas. It can be complex, a complex work and not always so easy.
MG: In that exhibition you also had a couple of photos from your other work. I think they were from Forest Apparatus. Being interested in the connection between apparatus and nature in this work could you tell me a little more about this?
JB: Yes, it is forest apparatus because it is human-made birch, human-made machine. For certain purposes, it directs to different inputs and creates a different output, reacting to other things. A book is a more linear, one directional thing. You put some information into it and it can be read by someone. It’s kind of a different manifestation of sorts. Apparatus is more like a program, however; it serves a certain purpose while executing it. A forest, of course, is a non-human habitat, but in order to make a machine to make a forest, it would need to make trees, because trees are what a forest is made up of. So a tree becomes a forest apparatus, and just like if a tree was to be human made, you could still call it forest apparatus. Apparatus doesn’t mean it has moving parts, but is some object with a problem-solving purpose or a purpose to create problems, if you wanted it to.
MG: I just want to be clear how you use the word ‘apparatus’. In the case of Marshall McLuhan, ‘apparatus’ would be more like an extension of the forest, and in the case of Vilém Flusser ‘apparatus’ would take a position of being creative; it would be a self-executing part of the forest.
JB: No, for me apparatus is a physical manifestation of human will; of the inventor’s will or the company’s will that is creating it. For example, you can say that an iPhone is a tool to make things, but inevitably it is a manifestation of Apple’s will to make money. So the iPhone is a money-making apparatus for Apple and its partners. Though it has many different aspects, but you can put everything as money making apparatus, it is quite simple. It is also political.
MG: Let’s say, in this case, we have a forest and this one single tree which is an object called apparatus. Where do the politics lie in this case? Are they contained in how the forest interacts with this object? Or is the apparatus there in order to make this photo and bring it into the context of the viewer?
JB: Let’s not only talk about the title. The title is only one layer of the work. A more interesting layer than the title is actually the real experience to be had when meeting that apparatus in the forest. There are two ways of meeting it. The first is by accident; you wander through the forest and pass by some tree, you may wonder why it has a small, funny looking hole that looks like there could be plastic inside. Then, upon getting closer, you see that it still looks like a tree but that, at some point, when you touch it, you find out that it is not a tree after all. This human-made tree seemingly looks like a natural tree, and you think “why would someone do that?” That’s an interesting question to ask yourself without necessarily knowing any answer to it. So it forces you to be creative. And that’s one possible way of encountering the work. The second way to meet that apparatus is to be in an exhibition where I offer descriptions for how to find the piece. The description is not at all perfect, as in it does not give you exact GPS coordinates. It is more like a verbal description with a lot more chances for failing to find the work. So you might end up searching in completely the wrong place. As such, you start mistrusting all the trees, suspecting them all of being fake. You begin to analyse every tree in detail to determine if it is fake or not. It makes you scrutinise every tree really closely as though each one could be a sculpture. Because you look at all the trees as though they were individual pieces of human-made art, the whole forest suddenly becomes a tree exhibition. The forest apparatus creates this tree exhibition.
MG: There are many directions to think about what you’ve said, and I could ask and ask questions. But from what I basically understood, by offering fake objects or fake stories among real ones, it invites people to start thinking about or analysing them. Is that your message for the viewer?
JB: It is more like a situation in which viewers have to come up with a new ways of thinking about certain relationships they have with their environment. They are not forced to go into the forest, but if they ran into a fake tree in the forest, they would definitely begin to think of a reason for what that fake tree was doing there. I want to force people to think about that. I put people in this situation where there is no easy way out. I like art that actually really forces its audiences to think.
MG: That’s pretty cool. Thank you for answering my questions Julius.
Julius von Bismarck (b. 1983) is a German artist currently living in Berlin. He attended Berlin University of the Arts (UDK) and Hunter College in New York City. His project Image Fulgurator (2007-2011) was awarded the Prix Ars Electronica and has been acclaimed by a wide audience whilst having been presented on various media outlets including Wired, Arte and The Creators Project of Vice among others.
Mindaugas Gapševičius (b. 1974) is an artist, facilitator, and curator based between Berlin, Weimar, and Vilnius. He earned his MA at the Vilnius Academy of Arts and his MPhil at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is currently a PhD candidate at Bauhaus University, Weimar, where he holds an artistic Associate Chair.
More about exhibition Citynature: Vilnius and Beyond
We are grateful to Vėjūnė Tamuliūnaitė for her cooperation on preparing this text.