On intimacy and society in the work of Gregg Smith
It was only on the way to meet Gregg Smith that I really began to understand what his work is actually about. The meeting involved a journey from Antwerp to Paris where the South African artist currently lives. Take the Thalys and these days you are there in just two hours. So it's quick but, more surprisingly, viewed from such a fast-moving train, your surroundings look completely different. And I don't just mean the cinematic image you have through the window as the flat, green landscape of Northern France flashes past. (Paul Virilio once described that sensation rather beautifully as a “negative horizon”.) There is also another experience, namely that of a swaying and reverberating train to which you are wed for a while, upon which you are dependent. The fact that the train is constantly in motion means that your body is as well. Your head rocks slightly from left to right as you read a newspaper or tap away on your laptop. When you walk down the corridor to fetch a drink from the mobile bar, you must take care that the lurching high-speed train doesn't bring you to the ground. No, the Thalys does not glide through the countryside; it shakes you towards your destination at an apparent 300 kilometres an hour. This moving capsule makes you aware of your surroundings. It begins to shape your whole being – or at least your physical being. And that is precisely what Gregg Smith does in his work. In many of his video performances he elevates the surroundings or the sets to the status of actor. The artist has the setting of an event or occurrence, often a meeting between people (as in the telling ‘Should we never meet again') move with the action in an almost surrealist way, so that the material surroundings partly construct the meaning of the human encounter. They are an accessory to the contextualization, definition and visualization of the meeting. In other words, our everyday surroundings are performative and to a certain extent determine not only our social interaction, but also our uniqueness, our identity. The French philosopher Michel Foucault shared that insight with us some thirty years ago. Gregg Smith translates it into images. So time for a meeting.
Hegemony and artistic freedom
We are put in mind of Foucault's body of ideas not only by the way Smith has a material space perform, but also by his understanding of the impact of the social environment on the individual being. Indeed Smith sees the relationship between society and subject as relatively deterministic – with the emphasis on relatively. At the very least the social environment exercises power over the horizon of a single ‘mover's' movements. Evolutions in society, but particularly drastic social changes, jeopardize the position and self-definition of individuals. That vision of the relationship between a society and the people who live in it is certainly drawn by Smith's own roots. Born in Cape Town, South Africa in 1970, the artist saw a society career from one regime to another. Even if the policy of apartheid has now been relegated legislatively to the history books, in reality the past continues to infiltrate the present of which inequality and discrimination are still very much part. Anyone who lives in South Africa today – black or white, physical or mental victim – is still bombarded with ethical questions. It was this permanent pressure of a society in crisis that decided Smith to up sticks and leave. Artistic freedom is curbed by the constant demand to comment on ethical and political questions and to agitate in a violent environment.
Smith : “Every community has its mechanisms for manipulating and controlling. The South African society is very masculine in structure and the problems are rife: poverty, HIV, violence... Everyone who experiences oppression as a social condition is affected by it; it becomes an integral part of your behaviour. Even if you don't have personal experience of those problems, you nevertheless constantly sense the confrontation. And as an artist, you feel a particular responsibility to play a role. I still like to go there because there's so much going on. But when I am there, at a certain point all that violence and the like becomes too much. You don't feel it literally, but it manifests itself in the way people engage with one another... with more muscle, more ‘self-defence'. It takes a lot out of you, and I don't want that any more. I get so tired of it. South Africa is undergoing rapid social change. The community was in a psychological rut for a long time and that makes it difficult to think outside the established pattern. It also becomes difficult to change your mind, even if you know that a view is misguided, or limited perhaps.”
The ‘round about' as part of a subject
So Smith sought freedom in Europe. But despite this move, the same sort of questions are still with him and he regularly airs them in his work. Even in a relatively non-violent democratic society, Smith discovers both material and human hegemonic structures which determine conduct. After all, an individual's path is shaped by what at the end of the nineteenth century the German sociologist Georg Simmel called ‘objective culture'. This consists of buildings, streets, bureaucracies, institutions, legacies, hereditary debts, etc. which individuals internalize to a greater or lesser extent, or which sometimes even infect individuals. A personality is only formed by walking through an – always alienable – objective culture. It is that culture which Smith makes more visible in his work. It might just be tiny details, like the pattern on wallpaper which begins to move in the about of an intimate conversation in ‘background to a seduction', or the ‘itinerant set' which regularly intervenes while the protagonist wanders round a French town in the video ‘Should we never meet again'.
Smith : “The ‘round about' becomes part of a person. The space helps construct a person's identity, but in such a way that it can be reconstructed over and over again. Objects are living. I try to make the texture of a space felt in my work. The tendency is to interpret a new space through an old space, or a new person through a previous one. I am also interested in the layers or veils between reality and a person's perception. Our surroundings are receptive. There are so many things which determine who we are from the outside. The surroundings are both passive and active. But our perception draws a line under what is available, permissible and possible.”
By bringing the context (back) to life in a sometimes almost surrealistic way, Smith arouses in the spectator a greater awareness of his surroundings, bringing about a more intense relationship with who and what surrounds us. With this approach the artist also alludes to the functioning and borders of our perception. Smith regularly displaces these borders, thereby engineering tiny shifts in the way we experience not only our surroundings but also ourselves. Identity is shaped by microsocial relationships between people and things. That, it seems, is what Smith wants to tell us.
Another theme which constantly crops up in the artist's still relatively young oeuvre is the encounter. Not only is this theme central to the already mentioned ‘Should we never meet again' and ‘background to a seduction', but also to ‘Le touriste' which focuses more on the relationship with the unfamiliar Other. ‘We met at the bus-stop' and ‘The interview' are acted dialogues with an absent alter-ego, or is it the spectator who is addressed here? The encounter has a very specific meaning in this work.
Smith : “What interests me about meetings is the possibility of redrawing borders or a person's sense of borders in a short space of time, or over a longer period. It enables you to lose yourself for a moment in a form of discussion or exchange which therefore need not be verbal. I am always interested in the moment when boundaries come down. In a meeting you can transcend yourself. I am interested in how far a person allows an exchange to go, dares to drop his guard. But it also has to do with how a person interacts with a community. Other people are always circulating around you. When I worked with performances, I saw the public space as a catalyst for exchanges and interaction which you would not expect in an [ordinary – P.G.] situation.”
Smith broke away from the commonplace in his ‘A book of giving' performance, in which he set off into the city with a bunch of roses and asked someone working in a car park who he would like to send a rose to. Smith duly delivered it, before asking the recipient the same question. Eventually the artist crossed the city sixteen times in one day, travelling from one anonymous ‘fantasy relationship' to another and thereby exposing an alternative vision of a corner of society. You might describe it as a network of hidden intimate relationships within the urban fabric, or perhaps a city's ‘gentle side'. And that leads us to another recurrent theme in Smith's work. He seems to go in search of (a lost) intimacy in the public space. These days we are engulfed by false intimacy such as in the television programmes ‘Big Brother' and ‘Temptation Island'. But this is commodified, and so rendered harmless. Only a shred of emotion is left, because the directness or frontal manner in which it is shown robs it of its intensity and warmth. Consequently the spectator is often left with the bitter taste of a lack of intimacy with himself and his wider social environment. However, in his work Smith aims at a different sort of intimacy and again it has a very specific function in a society.
Smith : “I think that intimacy changes a person's understanding of a community. Intimacy is accepting a situation that is voided of rigidity. In a situation like that a person is permitted to think further than the place where he left off thinking. He goes beyond his earlier understanding of things. Intimacy is the moment when you go further than yourself, but also when your understanding and your perception of things become 'denser' and more 'textured'. That can only happen when you have real confidence in a situation, giving rise to a sort of gentleness. It is the moment when hegemony, the need to keep things in their place, erodes. That may sound like a liberal interpretation of intimacy...
My work has to do with bringing an individual closer to his own life. These days the problem is that life goes too quickly. There is so much information available and we can easily travel to different places. So, while logically life should become more meaningful, in reality the opposite seems to be true. Life is more meaningless; there seem to be fewer experiences which really touch people. Moments of intimacy are hard to come by. How do you make something more meaningful?
The intimacy to phase hegemony out of a society - that is not only a very strong – albeit idiosyncratic – idea, it also rounds off a notion in Smith's work. It is after all in intimate relationships, such as meetings between people and things, that small shifts can take place. And it is those micro shifts which make it possible to escape – perhaps only temporarily – the determinants of over-rigid social structures. That also clarifies ‘The End', a film Gregg produced at the FLACC in Genk, inspired by the abandoned mine buildings which grace the Limburg countryside. He went and talked to former employees and was moved by their stories.
Smith : “The moment news of the closure got out, everyone became transfixed by his own dilemma. Nobody knew what was going on, everyone was told a different story. Some had a family, others were still young. So everyone was in a specific situation with different benefits and pensions. For some it was very difficult, lives were shattered.”
The surprising thing about ‘The End' however is that it does not really convey these emotions. Conversely, Smith presents a Kafkaesque story of two men busying themselves in a small office in an old mine building. As in other artistic works by the artist, an important role is reserved here for the set, and the first thing that strikes us this time is the busy, flowery wallpaper. But it is the atmosphere and tension between the two men that dominate. Clearly something unheimlich is about to happen, but what? A closure? The two employees are already clearing out their belongings. The paradox of all this activity, however, is that nothing actually happens. ‘The End' is a standstill, there is scarcely any narrative development. Nothing changes, nothing in the relationship between the men nor in their wider work environment. All that activity leads nowhere and it certainly does nothing to influence their personal situation. The hegemonic social structure is clearly determined by an invisible employer who imposes on them relatively pointless bureaucratic activity. But why doesn't anything change? Smith has already answered that question. In his world, intimacy is important for shifts to take place and that is what is missing now in ‘The End'. One of the protagonists does endeavour to introduce intimacy by referring to the importance of his family life, but each time his colleague blocks it. There is only the rather cold behaviour of two actors who communicate but don't concur. It takes warmth to expunge hegemony, and that is what is so studiously lacking in this short film. Consequently the men don't break through the oppressive social setting, and so don't manage to rise above their own existence either.