I am contributing to an exhibition called “Approaches to Happiness” in Sofia/Bulgaria (curated by Evelyna Kokoranova) as one of the authors of the catalogue. Read the interview I led with Ulrike Königshofer, Austrian artist, about her approach and fascinating work.
For your series “Love” you constructed nine sphere-rod models of different molecules, which neuroscientists suggest are responsible for the thing called love. How was the research, did it feel like disenchantment?
Disenchantment was the starting point for this work. Occasionally I had read the literature of the neurologist Oliver Sacks, who vividly describes how strong and peculiar neurological and chemical processes in our bodies affect our condition, as well as our very self. During that time also two friends of mine fell ill with mental diseases and were treated very effectively with medication. For me, that put into perspective my whole relationship to my own feelings and to the understanding of my own self. The specific idea for the work emerged later when I experienced love sickness; so intense was the physical impact of this emotional state, it provoked the very disconcerting thought that all of these emotions arise on a chemical level.
Furthermore you are concerned with other hormones and messenger substances in your art works, for instance serotonin, which regulates positive and negative emotions right up to depression. Does happiness seriously depends on light supply, potatoes and our hormone level?
Well, about the potatoes that is the thing: They hold a substance (like many other vegetables), serving our body as a “brick” to produce a messenger. This substance, L-tryptophan, for example, is contained at a much higher concentration in chocolate, but I wanted to deliberately avoid those only too well-known associations and come down to earth, so to say. Serotonin. matter of mental states lives from the connection between the immaterial emotions (happiness or sorrow) and a piece of vegetable. Similarly I treated light as a physical material in other works, virtually withdrawing its romantic, ‘sunset’ aspects. These kinds of juxtapositions get to the heart of the question more effectively.
The scientific models of explanation are, I admit, winning, but in the same moment they have limitations and simplify something that seems more complicated to me… What is your interest in models that aim to explain our feelings?
Certainly that is a double-edged sword: On the one hand I find those surveys interesting and they are quite helpful for specific applications. On the other, I am very sceptical towards models which put measurement values on physical states in order to discern the functional principle of a whole system. Measuring brainwaves (previously they measured brain weights) and drawing conclusions for the system is maybe similar to knowing how much current flows in certain sections of a computer without being acquainted with its functional circuit diagram (or concerning the other example: inferring the content of a book from its weight). Yes, you can speculate about the coherence of certain occurrences appearing with one another, but the functional principle will not be revealed.
In Huxley’s dystopia Brave New World all inhabitants are by default high on euphoric drugs. Doubt, clear insight and cognition are only available at the price of sorrow. Happiness and sorrow are not alone meaningful as contrasts that help us distinguish between the two, they are also catalysts for art and science – Can you take pleasure in this opinion?
I think it is crucial to create opportunities to become happy, and somehow the possibility of happiness encloses the possibility of sorrow. Once life restricts and bounds itself too much, you cannot speak about happiness anymore; so yes, life must be open for everything, otherwise one misses the substance. With my art, I have to admit that I work better when I am not unhappy. I am a very emotional person and I am poor at blocking out my feelings, my work however is rather analytical dealing with fairly theoretical problems. I have the highest concentration every time when I am not concerned about elsewhere. Nevertheless an emotional thunderstorm of course can give you a certain boost, and if anything, it is possible that people receptive to intense emotions are altogether more open to everything happening out there in the world, an accessibility that is surely advantageous for creative work.
Science is not objective, but rather follows certain paradigms. If you look at neuroscience from that perspective which image of humanity would you say underlies the discipline? And is there an alternative?
I do not want to take the same line „ Science is evil“. The methods of the natural sciences are (contrary to religious theories) generally agreeable because they really attempt to create comparable values, which will be falsified (at least theoretically) if something more promising is to be found. Basically, the methods are functioning quite well, but if you take a closer look, everything will be relative.
Behind every reflection – even if scientific – stands a human, who has certain views. Facts as such do not exist; things need to be read in one or another direction. Without this process of reception, data is nothing. And it is at this point where things get really complicated because one can draw up theories and on top of that claim that they are verified by data and finally unquestionable.
From the 19th century we know about the misuse of science (for instance, with regard to the racism), and the same may be said about the 20th century one day, but not until there are new theories which will replace the older ones.
Sure, neuroscientists see the human as a sort of machine. Probably that is the only way to make the system comprehensible. A machine does not necessarily need to consist of small metal pieces and have a power plug, so that the whole “apparatus” has certain rules, a distinct way of how processes run. Can one really claim that about a human? I would say this is the big question. Anyway, this would be an apparatus of such complexity that it could be hardly understood by another apparatus.
Technologies like the internet change the humans in their social interactions, their cultural practices and so on. Do you think the time of the individual is expiring?
Of course this question must be denied. Nonetheless, one has to ask oneself what constitutes the individual, and here is where it becomes difficult because those borders can blur easily – not to mention the technical aspect of artificial intelligence. During the reproduction of corals, for example, first tiny floating animals develop, which later stick again to the “mother coral” and function like one organism. In ant or bee colonies every single being has its clearly defined purpose, only functioning collectively as a system. Strictly speaking the human body consists of many micro-organisms (such as bacteria) which form a well-coordinated biotope. The idea of an individual, at least how we normally see it, is a very limited model following our imagination of beings within a human living environment. There is no natural individual as such and this concept is, like many others, a human construction.
What is the biggest fortune of our time – and its biggest misfortune?
That is a very political question. I think the networking process holds huge potential giving a voice to people, who were otherwise voiceless, mobilising people as a result and forging a common force that was impossible in previous times. I hope this development will continue.
The biggest misfortune (not just of our times) resides in egoism. As soon as humans solely think about themselves, ignoring how actions should contribute to sustainability for the whole society, lots of adverse developments result; what is good for one person is bad for many and particularly bad for future generations.
In the end: Do you believe in love?
I know there are people who can give rise to feelings in oneself, feelings one did not even know would exist. And if the other one feels the same it is the best thing ever. That love exists is beyond all doubt for me—although it possibly does not stay with the same person forever.
Ulrike’s homepage: www.ulrikekoenigshofer.at
Credo Bonum Gallery, Sofia: https://www.facebook.com/events/1566008053615235/?pnref=story
Interview: Silvia Halfter | Translation: David Jackson