Hans Eijkelboom: “Fewer and fewer people are part of a group”

Valentin Diaconov in conversation with Hans Eijkelboom.

Valentin Diaconov: In the English-speaking art world, we sometimes have this incorrect perspective about artistic careers.  If the artist is, for example, from Central Europe, he is “publicized” through big events like documenta, and approached by big global curators like Dieter Roelstraate. So, before documenta 14, where your work had a prominent position, I had no idea that your work started as early as the 1970s. How did your career, your artistic path, evolve over time before your works hit the global spotlight?

Hans Eijkelboom: In small scale. From the beginning, there was interest in my work. From the beginning, there was also interest from the international art world, but because I'm a really between a photographer and an artist, I was not so interesting for the photographers’ world because my photos are not so interesting, and for the art world the problem was that I am a photographer, and that's the reason why I fell always a little bit in between. The important thing is that it was not so easy, I think, I don't know if that's the reason, but I think it was not so easy to sell my work, and I have always had a complicated relationship with the art world and with the galleries. I think that is also a reason why before documenta the interest in my work was what is was.

VD: Was it a problem for you to define yourself in a certain way?

HE: No, not really, but every time people ask me, if I was a photographer, especially in the beginning, in the 1970s, when photography was not so accepted in the art world, this used to be one of the most frequent questions. It was mostly: “are you a photographer or are you an artist?”. For me, it was never a problem. The problem was to define my own position and I started with: “I am an artist and I use the medium of photography”. And now, I'm an artist. Douglas Huebler was probably also the most important of all the artists who influenced me in a way. I made my work and then saw the work of Huebler, and then I felt a lot less lonely.

VD: Douglas Huebler is an artist, a writer, a theoretician. He is very focused on the relationships that constitute the artwork, and for you obviously the relationships that you invent, create for each artwork, are also even more important maybe than the final product.

HE: Yes, no doubt it is true.

VD: So, it's very easy for you to approach people. In this way you are very street smart, you can easily approach and put this person into a story that you've already invented. You operate in many ways like a social agent?

HE: Yes, more or less, but for myself. The start is always to start. Every day, it starts again, and I try to understand myself and to understand society, and, first of all, to understand the relationship of myself with the society and in the society, and what is the influence of the individual on the society and the influence of the society on the individual. But no, it is not that I know that story already and that I make my work to tell the story.  Basically, the story starts every day, then… I don't know how to say this.

VD: So, every day, you start again?

HE: Yes. And this is the base of my work. It is impossible to go to the city to photograph, now for more than five years, if you are not really interested in what you will see on the street. This it is really impossible when you know everything, and it is not really curiosity, but you still want to know. And maybe, I am still too stupid that I don't know it after such a long time. However, otherwise you cannot work like me. It is hard work. When you go to a city there is a little bit of shyness to start. I always have the same feeling and I question myself: “Can I do it the way I work? They don't know that I am a photographer?” And every time, I have to get over that barrier and to know: “why do I want to do it?”, and then I start.

VD: And what could be the reason why? You said that you start with shyness, so, what could be the answer that gets you started, that makes it work?

HE: An aspect that I see on the street triggers me: that is the start, and that can be everything because I don't want to find special things because otherwise you are immediately a part of the fashion world and I am not interested in fashion. I am interested in the people on the street and how they act and how they react and how they look.

VD: So, you start every day with a “clean plate”, so to speak?

HE: Yes.

VD: Is this a conscious technique, a mental technique, maybe, that you have? What do you have to do to restart?

HE:  No, for myself, it's a kind of strange stupidness that I can function like that.  

VD: It comes easy for you.

HE: Yes... No, I cannot say it in another way because really the problem is the same for me as it was forty or fifty years ago, in another form. I cannot give an example, but I am sure that if I go Saturday to the city and I start photographing that there will be aspects in the street, and in the city, that trigger me really.

VD: But your life is somehow defined by being completely undefined, isn’t it?

HE: Yes, that's partly true, but that's always the question: in which part are you a product of yourself, or are you a product of society? The thinking about that aspect is also very interesting to develop. When you are young, sorry if I formulate a generality, you are thinking I am 20% a product of society and 80% a product of myself and my own. When you are seventy years old like me, then you know you are 20% a product of yourself and 80% a product of the society you live in. The fact that I know it does not make it more difficult to do what I do because in a way I do it. That development will be present, and in the end, you will see that when I present the findings.

VD:  So, another interesting effect of your work, when you see the video that we have been watching or its printed version, is that it looks like a satire, like a whimsical critique of people's behaviors. So, people go in the video room, they start looking at what they perceive is the work, a graphical simple strip of photographs, but staring at the slide show of the video, people start understanding and start feeling very funny about the fact that nearly all types of outward appearances are accounted for.

HE: Yes.

VD: And they start to feel that this is, like you said, their 80% of individuality is shrinking. It's a funny feeling. Is this funny aspect of what you do important? Do you want to make people laugh at the fact that reality is not…?

HE: No, I don’t seek this effect. I see my work very seriously. Of course, I know that people when they are in the exhibition, there is always loud laughs about my work, and that is a very nice and good aspect of the work, and also for me. But I am a very serious man and I cannot believe that when I make a work that people will laugh about the work because it's only about themselves basically. When they look, they immediately see: “oh I also have Nike shoes” and so on and so on.

VC:  Yes, many examples…

HE: Yes, in the beginning, but when the people are out of the show usually, they tell me afterwards that they've gone on the street, and they have looked at the society in the same way I did it, and then after a moment they recognized that they are also part of that aspect. For me it's more about a general weakness of the human being that it is so easy to influence us. Something can change, and then we all “go”, and for me this is not so critical, but it is so unbelievable that we are so weak in in our mind, that is it so easy, in a strange way, to influence us.

VC: Another interesting effect that you work has, after you look at it, at least for me personally and I don't think I'm the only one, is that when you go out to the city now, you really start valuing originals and eccentrics, people who cannot end up on your photographs. Do you feel the same way, when you go out to the street and you see such a specimen a very fashionable or very voluptuous example of self-presentation?

HE: I see it and I admire. It is necessary for the society that there is a group that do define themselves and do not follow fashion.

VD: Did this project make you more self-conscious about your choice of what you wear?

HE: No.

VD:  No… so, it isn't something that influences you. I'm asking about the various reasons, it’s not something that makes you think that you're too weak, or make you wish…

HE: To be stronger?

VD: Yes

HE: No, no, not really. Now that I am old and also ten years ago, I have always had the feeling that I buy very special clothing for myself and that everybody can see that I am free. And of course, that's very naive to think that because the very fashionable people you see on the street, are also the product of the latest fashion week in Paris. If you follow fashion, you can see: “oh shit, there it is, I saw it a year before there and there, and now it appears.”

VD: Then the question is, and this is one of the main questions of the show: “Does fashion exist?” or is fashion just a very fresh way of not being imitated? ... But this freshness goes away very quickly. Can fashion exist?

HE: You know it for yourself also, when you are, let's say, especially fourteen or fifteen. You want to be a part of a group, you want to show that you are part of that group. I think that's the start and the base of all what fashion is. There are groups in society that you want to show that you are part of. At the moment, it is a strange development that you see: fewer and fewer people are part of a group.

VD: Fewer and fewer. What comes instead of being part of a group?

HE: The greyness.

VD: So, it is what you feel over the years that you have been doing this project.

HE: Yes more of the sameness, more..

VD: The entropy?

HE: Yes, at the moment, I think of five big companies that define what the fashion industry is. Uniqlo for instance, that more and more influences what you see on the street. And it has also to do with the development of the economic system. You have the fairly poor people and the fairly rich people, and a very big group in-between. For the big group in-between there is no development any longer. The poor people are poorer and rich people are richer. In Holland the middle class is going away. The middle class was the class that made the difference, who wanted to show “I am a carpenter” and “I have a little bit more money than him” and that’s gone.

VD: So, the middle class dies out and the distinctions go with it.

HE: Yes.

VD: That's a very interesting development, but the question is: in this process, could it be, that certain dress codes of very globally powerful people are also influencing this? For example, Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook looks like a person who has just bought something at H&M.

HE: You are right, it goes together.

VD: Did you ever collaborate with others, maybe there was some interest from sociologists, anthropologists, who wanted to take this work as an example and do something with it?

HE: No.

VD: Did you seek someone? Did you search for someone to collaborate with?

HE: No, not really.

VD: So, you don't want this work to be part of some big Research Institute Project?

HE: No. Probably when I stop, when I quit the project, but at the moment, I want to go on the street with the same feeling, and start from the same starting point than at the beginning. And if I make a collaboration, then, they will define how I have to work, the way I have to work with them. This is what I don't want.

VD: So, you want to be free of hypotheses, definitions, structures that could restrain your work?

HE:  Yes. Then it is really a part of a work of its own. I saw many books like that, that are collaborations and, in the end I don't like that, it’s not so interesting.

VD: So, entropy, the erasure of the middle-class, the lack of distinctions, this is something that is perceived through this project. We talked yesterday with Katya, the other curator and with your wife about how the new ways of looking at large amounts of images might influence your renewed popularity within the art world because basically what you do is, in many ways, or it could be perceived, as an artificial intelligence.

HE: Yes.

VD:  It could be perceived if you like look at it for a minute, but the further I go, the more I understand that there's someone behind the camera, that this is a very human perspective, but in many ways the reasons of why you're doing this work are very much in the trend of what we understand as artificial intelligence. What is your relationship to these new data, big data collecting systems, these whole new algorithms? You don't have anything to do with this, do you?

HE: No. I'm also working with text on T-shirts and yesterday someone told me that with big data they have tried to find the ideal language, the ideal sentence that should be on a T-shirt. They gave me the website  and half of it was: “rape everybody” or something like that….

VD: The ideal?

HE: Yes, and it is so strange to me, so that now it raised my interested in the big data, but till now, no. It is so problematic. For me until now it is so simple, I cannot make it more than what it is. It is only possible to do it in the way I do it, and not to be influenced by anything.

VD: I understand the opposition but what is interesting is, now that I think about it, is that some works of yours, even the older ones, can be perceived as someone doing a live off-line Google search. There were no languages and algorithms to do that in the 1970s. You were a one-person Google search that went from person to person and you got results that ended somewhere, like a Google result also ends. Do you see what I mean?

HE:  Yes, I see what you mean.

VD: With this, even in the 1970s, you were much closer to the today's way of understanding images, of dealing with images, than your colleagues in the conceptual photography field. For example, if we take Hans Peter Feldman, I'm a big fan, he is in broader sense problematic, it is “the object versus original versus copy etc”. Now, what you are doing is much more connected to the dataflow that we are in today, and also the work that what you were doing even back then is much more connected to the data flow that we have now. You envisioned Google search before there was any notion of that concept. Do you think it is important, or it is absolutely disconnected from your work?

HE: No, it is very interesting to hear that from you and also others said similar things, but for me, as I already said, it is really impossible to integrate that kind of knowing in my work.  However, I've made the decision to stop with projects after thirty years, and in two or three months, I will go back to the first series I made for the photo notes, for the diary. I will look at what were the reasons and arguments to start the projects and I will try to look back. I will look at the other hand of the project to what I have learned from the project, to integrate in the new work that I will make. I think that it will more influence the way of working and the way I function as an individual than it will give me reasons to make different works. What you tell me to integrate, I think, that will not be a part of my thinking of my searching, of my of working.

VD: I'm not telling you that you should integrate, I am telling you that YOU were already thinking in this kind of technology. And this is the technology that has caught up to you, and not the other way around.

HE: That makes me very happy of course. (laughs)

VD: Of course… (laughs) You mentioned that you're going back to the reasons why you started. Do you have diaries or notes maybe?

HE: Yes, from the beginning I tried to formulate why I started and for what reasons I started. I did not write a formal diary, but from every year I have twenty pages or something like that with what I found and what I thought.

VD: What is your geography with this project? Do you know a place where you wouldn't go to continue the process?

HE: The really big tourists’ places are the only ones. Other than that, I would go everywhere in every other big city.

VD: Let’s take for example places where the dress codes are completely different from European dress code. For example, Delhi.

HE: I was in Delhi and also in Shanghai and in Tokyo and I was in Africa: in Nairobi, in South America: in Brazil. So, in that sense, there is no place where I don't want to work. Every place is basically interesting for me.

VD: You were saying yesterday that you, as a student, were traveling to big European art shows like documenta. Same question then for this project: “What do you think have changed since you first started to go to documenta? Are there changes in the approaches also, in this global representation of art, that you have been watching closely?”

HE: At this moment money is the driving force.

VD: So, money! You feel that gradually everything...

HE: Not everything, but the art world. Not the art, but the art world. Money is the most important part of the world at the moment.

VD: That is interesting because my first own experience of documenta, which was documenta 14, I had the impression that it was a show that was less commercial.

HE: Yes, but that was the precise decision of Adam. Adam knew from the start they will be no artists from important galleries and so on because the documenta, before Adam’s one, the biennale in Sao Paolo were more and more influenced by the big galleries. And in Holland, it is better to speak about my own experience, if you see the art and the academics, at this moment, the most important part of the study is to find a way to sell your work to be a part of the economic system. When I started, then we knew that if you wanted to be an artist then would be poor for your whole life, or in 99% of cases. You decided to make a life for yourself and I knew that it was possible to live without much money.