Hiwa K – “I'm cheating, I am getting money for nothing”

Nick Koppenhagen: What, to you, is the difference between "teaching" and "learning"?

Hiwa K: "Cheating".... ah sorry, I mean "teaching" is a form of "learning." I always play with "teaching" and "cheating." They always invite me to teach and I say, “I'm cheating, I am getting money for nothing,” because I'm getting money for learning from students; such a luxury to be a teacher! The only difference between the teacher and the students is the students pay money and the teacher gets money.

NK: So the difference is institutional.

HK: Exactly. Teachers often disorient students. The students, they come very often with good ideas to the academy, also in music schools. I can't judge, that it is always like this, but very often ideas are like abortions and they die before they are born. That’s just how it is with many art institutions. So yes, I think "teaching" is "learning." Annette, who gave a talk yesterday, I remember her saying she made a cake for a professor she was studying with and she wrote on the cake "teaching is learning" and the professor took it personal and said "I am teaching, I am not learning!"

NK: This is also a big part of your work, this attitude of learning, while doing something else.

HK: The thing is, I always start from the middle and I jump into the middle. I don't have a point of departure. One of the reasons is that I don't have a history of art, a history I can rely on, to call what I do “art.” If you work as a painter you have at least Michelangelo behind you. I have no one behind me. Actually, I am pretending that I'm doing art, I don't have the legitimacy to doing art. So it started with a "as if I had art history"-pretension. Because I started with "what if" and I stopped doing art for six years. I was a painter for fourteen years and I stopped doing painting, because I knew this lack of art history, so I was always in the moment of "what-if-ness," so after that it developed into "as-if-ness," because I can't question the things and do nothing. I have to pretend. Like, normally you have this kind of false teeth between two original teeth, a bridge. So this tooth is functioning actually, the chewing goes on, but it is not original. I am one of these false teeth maybe. Holding himself also with the context. So that helps me very often to overcome the difficulties of making a work, because making a work is a difficulty and when you solve this difficulty forms come out of that, we call it "art," I don't know what I call it.

NK: In a way now you have at least conceptualism or certain art practices from the nineties behind you, because you can relate your work to that.

HK: Yeah, I'm in Europe since 2001. I'm here for many years now, so I'm also a German. I am "Germanated" somehow, in both senses. But I wouldn't call my work conceptual. I really don't know what conceptualism is; I don't know about art, I never read about art.

NK: Ok, but what about something different, let's say Kurdish poetry or Persian poetry. This is also a history of art.

HK: As you see, also in my catalogue, the language I use, my anecdotes, I'm more rigid and stronger in them, because of this background in literature. I feel very strong coming from that background and I'm maintaining and extending it further. Your are right in that regard, but our oldest painting in our region is from the 1930s and just imagine what already was there in Europe in the 30s, so it is a crazy thing, but interesting. The last years, yes, they have influenced me. So, when I came to Europe – this is also one of these anecdotes –, the first thing I did was, I went to a discotheque as a young guy, and there was this table, two girls and one guy, so I bought four beers and went to them and I said: "And, what happened?" as if I've been just at the toilette for twenty years and just came back: "Did I missed something on the subject or not?" So, this is my art. I'm pretending that I know the whole story, but I don't know it actually, I have fragments. So this pretension, I'm not pretending in a malicious way. But you pretend and go one till you make it. That is how I did it in my work This Lemon Tastes of Apple, I didn't know what I was doing, I just knew that some guys are shooting and I knew with the harmonica you have to inhale and exhale, but the whole thing just starts to be something afterwards. This fragility, this "Zerbrechlichkeit," to be so involved in your work, there is no art anymore in moments like that. There is something you send your body to do and you just follow. And actually this can be very spiritual, because you start to feel you ego in the moment of danger and you feel it is not you and if they shoot him you will not die, he will die. It is hard to understand when you live in this beautiful aquarium right here. But I wish everyone could have this experience and come out alive.

NK: It is an existential experience.

HK: Yes, very much, and spiritual too. It was the second or third time I was in the danger of dying, death passed by and didn't see me and you have this very deep feeling that you become something else, when this body dies, it is not you. And as an artist to use this, to misuse this, to misuse your body and send it to certain situations, sometimes is urgent.

NK: So what does this communicate? Because, you write on your website that you are trying to avoid normative aesthetics

HK: First of all I don't know what "normative aesthetics" is, as I said I don't have an art history and I never go to galleries and it is just the second time that I'm here at KW. I spend half my time playing the guitar, so I have two passions to work on. I never had the time to read about art or to visit galleries, so I don't know what normative aesthetics are. And if I'm invited to show my work at the Biennale, or Documenta, I go and install my work and then I come back and play the guitar. But this is not an arrogant position, I just don't know much about art and it is too late to learn.

NK: Well, is it really too late?

HK: When I came to Europe, I had this one book about art history and the first thing was, we read from right to left, so I just looked at the images and there where some may names and so much text and I thought: It is too hard to know everyone, maybe I just do something so they will know me. And there is also enough material of lectures on YouTube and then, I'm also more interested in politics, economics, animals, everything. I really love YouTube, because you have everything.

NK: Yes, YouTube is fantastic!

HK: It is my university. So, I get my tools from other things.

NK: So, you are more interested in art in the broader sense of the word and not in the narrow institutionalized sense?

HK: Yes, till now I was like that and it is the big challenge, if I will lose this or if I can keep this. I am also used by others in a way, I realize that. I pay my studio and if I don't pay my studio I can not pay for my flat and if I can not pay for my flat, I have to live on the streets. And maybe something would come out of it, but I lived enough like that in my life. But the question also is, if you are forced to be a screw in this machine, how can you be a conscious screw? You are misused and you have to question things, but not in a way that you don't change anything. For example, my new sixteen hour long video work The Existentialist Scene in Kurdistan (Raw Materiality 01) tries to involve the collector, because if they buy the work they have to sign a contract that they will edit the work according to their taste.

NK: How many editions of The Existentialist Scene in Kurdistan (Raw Materiality 01) are there? How many do you sell?

HK: There are five, so there will be five versions of the work.

NK: And how strict is the editing rule?

HK: It depends, because I won't give it to anyone. If there was a museum, which wanted to buy it, which is funded by good money, I wouldn't be interested for example. I would be interested in somebody, some collector who is also involved in producing weapons, and therefore producing war actually. That would be really interesting, to see such a point of view. I wouldn't give all the five editions to a very leftist institution or a leftist collector, but maybe one would be good.

NK: There are also interesting ways they could cheat, I imagine. If you find a collector who is connected to big money in the military-industrial complex, they could try to do a structuralist cut, editing out just every other half-frame, so the whole content of the raw material would still be there. That would be a way they could distance themselves somewhat from the decision.

HK: I mean, this concept is around since 2009 and I gave a work to one Italian collector, I gave him five hours of raw material to do that, but it is very difficult for them to do it and we are still negotiating. It is not an easy task, so my work will not end at the point of selling the piece. There will be many negotiations and I can not… in Kurdish we say, you can not bargain with a fish in the sea, you have to catch it first. I should know the person and I should also know if I want to give it to him. And I could give it to someone for ten euro, I don't care, it is not about the money. If some comes with a good idea and we negotiate and he tells what he is thinking, the money would not be an issue. What is interesting to me is all these edited films would function as trailers for the raw material.

NK: And it is very good raw material, because it is completely subtitled. Again, it is very approachable.

HK: In that sense it is not completely raw, but it is uncut material, there is no exclusion in the material. There are moments in the material where I say "Can you say this again, I find it very interesting" or sometimes I provoke a situation and that is really a very weak thing to do, I would never show it and if you see it you say "Oh, this filmmaker is really manipulating those guys" and so I don't like myself in the situation. But as I said, what you exclude and what you include shows also your point of view. And Iraq itself is raw material, first oil and many other things and as a country it has been divided. Before 1920 there was no Iraq, the French and English tried to divide it. All the political decisions being made in and around Iraq and the entire region come from an external eye, which in this case means “from above”. It is a vertical point of view from western countries. Iraq cannot decide for itself, so the next step for The Existentialist Scene in Kurdistan (Raw Materiality 01) is to ask people to bring in an external eye to decide about that material. Now, I could also criticize this work and ask: "Shouldn't we try to put Iraq in the position to decide for itself?" But that would be too romantic. Even America can not decide for itself, now with Trump in power. But, I have to apologize for this kind of naivety.

NK: I don’t think it is naive.

HK: Well, after years of producing western-style paintings, I realized I was not speaking well in my artistic language. People didn't get what I was doing. And I always said: "Your problem, guys, you should inform yourselves about art," but actually it was my problem, and now I'm happy that everyone, even kids like to see my works and they understand it, or at least my work is now accessible to everyone. As I said, I'm not an intellectual, I'm not a bookworm, I learn from the streets of YouTube and from Teahouses in my own country. I'm using this language of normal people in my work.

NK: That reminds me of Michel Auder, he was also talking a lot about the streets, especially in connection to Daniel Knorrs work. And in the podcast episode I did with him, he was fantasizing about putting all his work on YouTube.

HK: Michel is a friend. I don't know many artists, but those two guys are good friends. Also, just until two years ago I was living from giving guitar lessons, struggling to even pay my rent. Many collectors told my other gallery: "We don't buy this guy, we can just download his work from the web." But they have to understand, the best space for my work is YouTube and Vimeo. If they want to, they can get a nice copy of the work and I write them a certificate, that they have the first or second edition, so they are happy. But the question remains, how can my art and what I say be inclusive and only exclusive in how I'm saying it. Many artists are exclusive in all regards, and I hope I'm not becoming one of them.

Proofread by Wesley Simon