Interview with Tamás Kaszás

by Maaike Lauwaert

For the exhibition SCI FI AGIT PROP, Maaike Lauwaert interviewed Tamás Kaszás. Their conversation is part of our exhibition publication, and is available below.

Download the PDF here.

INTERVIEW with TAMÁS KASZÁS

Maaike Lauwaert: When Niels [Van Tomme, De Appel director] started talking about working with you at De Appel, August 2016, what struck me and what stayed with me, is your use of materials that I will for now label "close to home and nature" (as opposed to digital and synthetic) and the way you seem to want to make shelters, homes, shacks for people and animals to hide in. Can you tell me a bit more about your selection of materials and the shelter-like works you make?

Tamás Kaszás: The recurring characteristic of the materials or techniques I use for my art practice is 'availability'. I'm always looking for different materials and try to learn new skills to develop diversity in a particular field. But I always prefer what is more or less easily available to everyone, thus to me too. In relation to materials, this means cheap, or recyclable materials, ones that are easy to get and transport, easy to work with.

Many of these materials, like many of the general building materials I use, are actually synthetic. In case of techniques it is important to me that I am able to do it by myself, or that I can learn it, or at least that I have a basic understanding of the chosen technology. Many of the skills I use are useful when you live on the countryside and you do most things around the house by yourself. Things you do when you construct from wood and metal, build from bricks, concrete or whatever else you can find. Things you do when you cultivate a garden, repair the water-pump or fix bikes. Oftentimes you don't have the right tools or materials or skills, so you have to invent them. A 'savage mind'-attitude helps you figure out how to apply what is given. So, you combine, transform, reroute, hijack or hack things and methods that were not supposed to be used that way.

I am interested in folk science in theory and practice. I think it is key for autonomy and self-organisation, or just simply for a more holistic life. We have lost much knowledge on how to exist in our modern urban society. Like, for example, how to make a shelter. Most of what we know wouldn't be useful in case of a technological collapse. But I am not a neo-primitivist. I am, generally speaking, not against technology. I use electronic and digital tools a lot, but, those are not very expensive or very complicated.

ML: Did you ever read Michel de Certeau's The Practice of Everyday Life?

TK: No, I didn't know De Certeau, I have just googled it now and his writing seems interesting. However, I rarely read pure theoretical books after I finished my MA, rather just informative or scientific books on topics I can somehow, at least a bit, turn into practice or imagine how they could be useful to me in the future. With theoretical texts, I often have the feeling that they are too far from reality. That was also one of the reasons why I abandoned activism years ago. Instead of organising demonstrations and the like, I wanted to organise my own life. This goes step by step. You learn how to fix problems, how to manage everyday life.

ML: This strategy of making-do, improvisation and self-sufficiency undermines approved methods and established results in various domains and is hence not only personal, practical, or in line with a different attitude towards Earth and life, but also political. Would you agree?

TK: Yes, I agree that it has a political aspect as well. Authority is exercised not only through force but also, obviously, through dependency. The more you can do yourself, the more freedom you have. And the more you can organise in an informal way, the less you have to deal with bureaucracy. And it is not only about skills but also about an attitude or behaviour. You have to be proactive and have a free mind to be able to improvise and accept solutions which were not industrially designed, which do not function according to standard procedures.

ML: Were you brought up to look upon the world and materials that way? TK: I was rather lucky to inherit this mindset and way of acting from my stepfather and my maternal grandfather. If something went wrong around the house they always tried to repair it themselves. There were many occasions to observe them or even help. As an adult, I realised that this was really important. Even if I have never actually done a particular job, once I get started, I can recall their movements. And, more generally, I am not afraid to solve problems I have never faced before.

In a broader context, this attitude is also connected to growing up during state socialism. That era has also been called the 'economy of lack'. You couldn't buy certain tools or materials, even if you had money, so people had to replace things in an informal way. For example, the steel sticks (reinforcement bars) that are normally used to strengthen concrete constructions were used as a base material for many different things. For example, they were used to produce fences, window grids, flower racks, and many tools and ornaments. (With Randomroutines, an artist duo I am part of, we researched this and organised a project on this topic: http://rebarpattern.tumblr.com/). Connected to this use of materials is recycling, not only as an ecological practice but also an economical one.

ML: How does this attitude towards materials, problems and resources, connect to your artistic practice?

TK: An artistic practice is a good field in which to collect different skills, experiment and improvise, solve problems in a creative way and realise things that were not imaginable before. As an artist, you have to deal a lot with time: what is free time and what is working time? You can spend your time doing alienating jobs for money in order to be able to pay the things you need, or you could spend that same time making those things by yourself. Such knowledge can be turned more into an everyday existence once you move away from urban life.

ML: Which you did?

TK: In a way. With the Ex-artist's Collective (the artist duo I am part of with my partner Anikó) we try to do exactly this. Our naive idea is to collect money from institutional art practices and with that money buy a farm to become ex-artists. Although it started as a joke, we try to take this seriously as well and have already taken many steps in this direction.

The point is that we not only try to collect money this way (which is already funny in itself), but also tools, materials, skills and knowledge. That means that we are working on the type of projects that allow us to conduct research into things that are useful in a non-art context as well (like edible wild plants for instance). I try to design installations with elements or materials that can be used at home or around the house. And vice versa, I try to make artworks mainly from materials I can collect and find around the house as well.

ML: You have spoken about a post-technological society in the outline for the exhibition at Netwerk Aalst and De Appel. Are you actually preparing for this?

TK: It is related to a fictional scenario I often use as a framework for my projects, which is the economical, ecological and technological collapse we might face in the future. Survival techniques and strategies for such a collapse are quite similar to the normal, more or less self-supporting lifestyles of the many people who live on the peripheries of big cities.

In our Famine Food project we have used the slogan from the manifest The Coming Insurrection by The Invisible Commitee: "Every practice brings a territory into existence". Of course, we will never be able to become fully self-sustainable but I believe it is nevertheless possible to reach this goal to a certain extent.

ML: Is it true that you and your family live on a hard-to-reach little island?

TK: No, not exactly. We live on a 30kms long island in the middle of the Danube River, just outside of Budapest. There are four villages with schools and everything, one bridge and many ferry connections to the mainland. It is absolutely not a remote place (except when it floods or when the ice comes).

What you might be referring to is the small weekend house we rent in an area that is only inhabitable for certain parts of the year. Of course, this life is different from urban life. It is more directly connected with existence as such and with nature. We have to organise certain things by ourselves, such as heating the house with wood, cultivating vegetables, building things around the house etc.

But it is not all that special, since many people live like this on the countryside. For us, it is a process in which we slowly delve deeper. We experiment by tending to a small garden and, for a few years now, keeping animals like chickens for the eggs. We collect more and more things from nature around us, even when we just go out for a short walk.

In the future, we wish to have a real farm where we could realise a permaculture garden on a larger scale. To design and physically realise such things, you need a very similar creative attitude as the one needed to make art. This attitude is, for me at least, in the first place about planning, solving problems, improvising, self-reflecting and building. I might actually enjoy the creation of a complex universe, like an orchard or a farm, perhaps even more than managing my institutional art practice.

ML: Which position does SCI FI AGIT PROP take in this process and thinking? I mean, which steps, or ideas, are you working on for the exhibitions at De Appel and Netwerk Aalst? How do they correlate to this bigger project regarding your personal life and your way of living it?

TK: It is not so black and white. I can more or less separate my works into two parallel developing groups. One group has pieces that are more connected to the reality of the life I live, often based on documentary-like materials. These are somehow more practical and at the same time also more playful. Sometimes they are even a bit personal. Most of these works are positive in some way. This is rather typical for the projects I realise with Anikó within the Ex-Artist's Collective.

The works in the other group are more 'serious' and abstract, typically theoretical or intellectual pieces with 'scientific' or artistic references. These are like artistic speculations, or models for an imaginary, parallel world, envisioning what could happen with humanity after a collapse. These works deal with the appropriation of different visual languages.

If the first group of works is akin to documentary film-making, this second group is a total fiction, or even better: a science fiction. These pieces are sometimes quite dark, or even depressing.

Of course, the two overlap, but the works on view at Netwerk Aalst and De Appel are closer to the second group of works. The long version of the title would be 'science fiction agitative propaganda'. The exhibition has - I think - three main themes: developing public communication in a technologically broken world, examining political visual languages through decontextualisation, and establishing fictitious social or political problems and questions from the near future, which reflect upon our contemporary position as the ancestors of that possible future. But even in the case of such thematic works I use many skills, structures and materials that come from my everyday life.

ML: Like the printing techniques you used in the workshops that took place in preparation of the exhibitions?

TK: Yesm the printing techniques we have used in the workshop, and which I generally use in my art practice, are a fitting and special example because they take place at the intersection of the two groups of artworks and modes of working I mentioned (the practical/realistic and the artsy/fictitious).

ML: Could you explain that in more detail?

TK: Content-wise, my graphic works are always based on an imaginary scenario, which is always present in the background. These works are conceptual, as they apply different languages, cultural references and so on. I also always imagine that these posters are not made by me as an artist, but that they are the cultural products of a small community, a collective or a tribe that lives under special, fictional circumstances. For this reason, I don't have a personal style like a painter would have. The materials and printing techniques I generally use are part of the collapse-scenarios I mentioned before.

ML: Do you consider this collapse imminent?

TK: I'm sceptical about the sustainability of technological progress and I like to imagine alternative realities and futures after a potential collapse. Culture is always dependent on the given technology. It is common knowledge that the medium, the format which holds the information, also has effect on it. So, technology is directly connected to the question of availability and power. Who can publish? In which way? And who can get that material at all?

ML: Hence the printing techniques…

TK: Yes, to make a woodcut or a linocut you need very little: something flat to carve into (a piece of plastic linoleum) and a sharp tool. Any knife will do actually. Then you need paint (this can be organic, made from plants) and something to print on, recycled paper or cloth. And with these basic materials you are ready to multiply information without electricity or any other specific infrastructure. Woodcut and linocut can be printed without a press machine. I always print my cut-outs for the first time at home by hand, I simply rub the paper on the cut-out with a spoon. This practical part is very straightforward and very much integrated into my life.

ML: Have you always worked with these techniques?

TK: I started to work with these traditional techniques during my time at the university to counterweight the so-called technological media that I studied at the intermedia department. Since then, I have made graphics mainly as a side project, like a hobbyist you could say, and have sometimes used them as elements of complex installations.

ML: As you are doing for these two exhibitions?

TK: Yes, but for the double show now on view at De Appel and Netwerk Aalst the posters play in fact the central role, while the other works create an infrastructural context around them. The workshops we did in Amsterdam and Aalst are a way of simulating a situation in which prints are a common form of sharing information, or of creating agitation within a community.

ML: Agitation as a political act?

TK: Yes, agitation in its original meaning: believing in an idea and trying to convince others or debate with its believers. Agitation often goes directly against the grain of the established system or of the state. Meanwhile, propaganda is the opposite of all this: official mass manipulation. 'Agitprop', the contraction of agitation and propaganda, is an oxymoron created by a pseudo-communist power. It is commonplace in political history that the ruling powers always try to expropriate language or simply try to undermine the meaning of certain words. This is what happens in Orwell's famous sci-fi stories.

It might sound strange but this phenomenon has poetic and even artistic aspects to it. Détournement, the conscious misuse, blurring or even hacking of language and meaning, are some of the typical tools artists use and which are also applied in mainstream politics. In my case, the posters use the format of agitation, or campaigning, but in terms of their content, they are not transparent at all: they deal with important common issues, but without a direct message.

Therefore, they are not easy to read and are more futuristic, as if existing in a culturally parallel universe. But then again, the design is not futuristic at all. I use rather familiar design elements from different sources, often from the past, and then mix them. They are supposed to work as traps that force the reader to create its own interpretation of a certain issue. What I miss most often in visual agitation (or propaganda of course) is seeing or showing things in their realistic complexity.