"Humor always finds its way, even in the face of resistance" - Three Questions for Judith Hopf

Art means making something “that does not put anyone in a bad mood.” At least that is the view of Judith Hopf, who is represented in the Deutsche Bank Collection. With laconic humor, the Berlin artist focuses in her installations, films, and performances on the rules of the art business: the obligation to have a market orientation, the fetish character of art objects, rigid gender roles, and the stringency of institutional critique. Yet the documenta participant herself was known in the 1990s as a representative of a generation of artists that worked conceptually and discursively. The Museion in Bolzano is now devoting a comprehensive show to the energetic artist.
ArtMag: Judith Hopf, In 2010 you wrote Contrat entre les hommes et l ́ordinateur (Contract Between People and the Computer), a kind of ironic manifesto in which you suggest that people should liberate themselves from their computers. But in your drawing series Waiting Laptop, with which you are represented in the Deutsche Bank Collection, person and machine seem to have fused together into an indissoluble unit. Why do we need to examine our relationship to computers and technology?

Judith Hopf: The suggestion for this contract was not meant ironically. During this time, I had had the experience that my personal and professional life was largely taking place in front of a laptop or another computer. So I got the idea that people should compare the time they spend at the computer with the time spend on other activities and possibilities of active participation in life. Perhaps I simply I hadn’t learned yet to physically emancipate myself from this device, just as a large part of the “Western” world in the postwar period in the 1950s could not tear themselves away from their televisions, a medium that had just been introduced. One’s own body became reduced to a so-called couch potato. So people first had to learn that they could switch off their TV sets. The contract was intended to propose that people should reflect on this kind of physical and psychological dependency and was meant as an emancipation attempt. Indeed it seems, as Hannah Arendt foresaw in the 1950s, as though we are dependent on technologies and their languages, on things we do not really understand and thus cannot influence. Instead, we are impressed too much by them. In addition, the participation of equipment manufacturers and programmers is not intended at all. Conversely, this may mean that we neglect and have forgotten about other possible ways of thinking, languages, and different kinds of involvement in political life.

ArtMag: Many of your works are characterized by a laconic, slapstick-like humor. It can be found in Waiting Laptops and in your Erschöpften Vasen (Exhausted Vases), vases painted with sad-looking comic faces, as well as in the film Some End of Things: the Conception of Youth. The latter shows a man dressed up as an oversized egg wandering through a modernist building. In your work, you always have your sights set on the institution, the exhibition situation, the representations and conventions of the art business. But institutional criticism does not exactly have a reputation as being funny. Why is humor important to you?

Judith Hopf: I learned that it is not good to convey political issues to an art audience directly, that they should not be addressed too straightforwardly. Artists like David Hammons, for example, have been able to stake out a place in museums and in art via their access to humor without forgoing political content. According to Freud, humor is a sign and expression of solidarity among likeminded people. So jokes can be against authority, against meaning, and can weaken existing power structures. As we know, it is difficult to prohibit humor – it always finds it way, even in the face of resistance. However, overt humor requires courage, for there is nothing more embarrassing than trying to be humorous and failing, missing the mark. So it is hard to plan humor as a strategy, much less force it. I think that humor is interesting when it conveys a deeper sense of the essence of things. If humor is viewed as a way of conveying something, it is perhaps quite suitable for creating distance between the topic, the author, and the recipient, simply because of the element of surprise. But one thing is certain: I have never begun an artistic work with the aim of making it funny in the end, or that a joke or slapstick humor should emanate from it. On the contrary. Interestingly, the humor simply works its way to the fore as you engage with things. And there is another important thing: Humor becomes flat and weak when you try to bring it back to its original context of meaning – when you explain the punch line of a joke, it’s boring.

ArtMag: You penned your manifesto in the style of the French revolutionary and Olympe de Gouges. At the same time, however, you refer to Hannah Arendt’s famous treatise Vita Activa. In this theory of political action, she says that every person is capable of actively changing something. In what areas do you think changes are absolutely necessary? And what contribution can art make?   

Judith Hopf: That is correct. My contract is a text collage of Hannah Arendt’s introduction to her work Vita Activa, the protest document Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen, written by Olympe de Gouges, Paris, 1791, and the pop song The Death of Ferdinand de Saussure, by the band The Magnetic Fields, from the album 69 Love Songs, published in 1999. As indicated above, I particularly follow Arendt when it comes to her warning about standardizing ways of thinking and languages. I am also afraid of a conformist society with a tendency toward standardization. So I hope to strengthen a kind of art that continually makes people aware that art does not have the sole and exclusive right to beauty and meaning, but is something that works to break up and change these ideas.

Judith Hopf
10/01/2016 – 01/08/2017
Museion, Bozen