'We forget that art is a primal instinct, like the libido' - Styrmir Örn Guðmundsson's opera What Am I Doing With My Life? - Preview weekend #3

Issue no4
Aug - Sept 2020

Talking to Styrmir Örn Guðmundsson about his traveling opera/rap show/comic routine What Am I Doing With My Life? at Kunstverein Amsterdam. + SOME OTHER UPCOMING EVENTS

Zoë Dankert: The second weekend of September your opera What Am I Doing With My Life? will premiere at Kunstverein Amsterdam. The opera is usually considered to be a form of art that is immensely involved with narrative and music. Could you tell me more about your interest in the opera?

Styrmir Örn Guðmundsson: My initial motive to make this project happen was to dive into a collective spirit. Previously I had made live works that mostly involved myself as a writer, sculptor and performer all at once. It got lonely at times and the need to detach from every creative responsibility of the live artwork was creeping behind me for a while. What Am I Doing With My Life? grew into an opera during the first stop of the tour in Vilnius where I worked with Jurgis Paškevičius. The performance was based on an improvised stand-up comedy about the arrogance of Western medicine stirred up with melancholic songs that I had been painfully squeezing out in my studio during a smoggy Warsawian winter. Jurgis shook his head upon my question for a collaboration with those songs and said: “Drop the melancholy man and let’s make rap music!”

I submitted myself to Jurgis’ gut feeling. My jokes became rhymes that Jurgis composed sick beats for. I like to create and tell stories and the lyrics in my songs are stories written to provoke thoughts about the habits we live with. These songs are broken links in a narrative chain that Yana Foqué, curator of Kunstverein, defines as an opera. Or better yet, a co-opera.

Will the opera be a one-man show?

It started as a one man treatment. But the faculty has grown so rapidly that this time we will be with the seven of us. It is my job to curate the spirits of the faculty. Hreinn Fridfinnsson, David Bernstein, Géraldine Longueville, Indriði Arnar Ingólfsson, Thomas Myrmel. Anat Spiegel, fashion designer Atagata as well as WAIDWML’s tour manager Annabelle von Giresewald will all be present in Kunstverein. Although I don’t like to put myself in a director’s chair and tell the artists what they should do precisely, I love to gather people into a groove, dissect their knowledge, reflect their trust and direct the joy. Attitudes on this I have picked up while assisting Hreinn Friðfinnsson, who will be joining us in Kunstverein with a special architectonic acupuncture.

Your work seems to revolve around the absurd as something from which humans could benefit if they would allow themselves to be more intimately involved with it. What is it that draws you to the absurd and how do you use it?

Absurdity is a beast. It inspires us to disconnect from the stress of every day life and reconnect with uplifting concepts and poetry that seem far away, but are close. Absurdity is also the bad karma. For some time I have been experimenting with ways to consider performance as a substance for special care and to create special knowledge of treatments for friends and audience. In order to do so, I’ve had to establish a medical faculty that consists of all the thinkers that join me in the project. Inside WAIDWML’s collaborative spirit a beautiful fungus has grown from nothing, thanks to this faculty.

Very early on in the project I came to realize that a rapper needs his DJ, just as much as a doctor needs her nurse, who needs the anaesthetists and the surgeon in order to succeed in the ER. September’s emergency will happen in Kunstverein and whatever the outcome may be I have made sure to have a stand-by grief counsellor in the building, the cosmic cowboy comforter​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​ David Bernstein.

In what way do healing and art intersect?

I sometimes try to wonder how a world without art (but with people) would look like. We would probably become fast extinct. I think we need art. In an interview, the artist Egill Sæbjörnsson spoke about expert art: “the experts are those who have studied, either creating art or talking about art. There is an art which fits that system perfectly; expert art, art wrapped in theories. But we forget that art is a primal instinct, like the libido. For the person who picks up a stick and draws in the sand, the experience can be as rewarding as when a qualified PHD artist gets his articles published in an art magazine. Art is a primary force which more people should embrace, it has healing powers.”

In your work you seem to reference to experiments in popular music of the new millennium as well as to rap music, sci-fi movies, the news, and video games. You mock them, imitate them and morph them. What is it that interests you in these popular cultural products to insert them in opera?

I often drag motives from the news I read and use it for my scripts and lyrics. Sometimes I copy-paste entire bits from the news and TV and fit them into my art. The approach of hip hop is precisely that in my understanding. The freedom to sample things around you. Just rip off things that move you.

Today sci-fi is not so far away. In art we have the privilege to enter a world of games and fiction. I love sci-fi and I am currently working on a graphic novel that I label as spi-fi (spiritual-fiction). My spi-fi story is about Leokadia who undergoes a near-death-experience. She loves the experience so much that she tries to find ways to jump back and forth into the world of NDE’s. What got me interested in NDE’s is the attitude of Tibetan Buddhism towards death, as well as the writings of the Dutch cardiologist Pim van Lommel. Van Lommel and his colleagues aim to objectively study what happens after clinical death. Their collected stories allow us a glimpse of consciousness alive and kicking after death. These topics move me and I have a lot of fun molding such ideas into artistic works of performance, comics and rap.

Some things I write and perform I feel very reluctant to share. But the funky fungus inside me encourages me to go against my thoughts and especially share the poetry I may feel the most awkward about.

You refer a lot to the "funky fungus". It makes me curious. Who or what is the funky fungus in you and in your work?

Let’s hear it:

Styrmir Örn Guðmundsson, What Am I Doing With My Life?, Kunstverein Amsterdam, 08 & 09.09.2017


The Living Room XL, een tentoonstelling als happening, AIR Antwerpen, 02.09.2017

Nora Turato, performance en tentoonstelling, Galerie Juliètte Jongma, 09.09.2017 (opening performance), 09.09.2017 t/m 7.10.2017

Kunstkritiek in Nederland, conferentie, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, 15.09.2017

Alicia Frankovich, Atlas of the Living World, performance, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, 01 & 02.09.2017

Brussels Gallery Weekend, 10 Years, Brussel, 07 t/m 10.10.2017

Anarchists, Squatters, Punks & …Yuppies?, Artists’ Initiatives in the Netherlands, from the 1980s to the Present, Quartiar, Den Haag, 08.09.2017

Feedback, Marshall McLuhan, opening event, West Den Haag, 22.09.2017, tentoonstelling t/m 19.11.2017

Collections in transition, Decolonising, Demodernising and Decentralising?, conferentie, Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, 22.09.2017

Rotterdam Cultural Histories #12: Witte de With; What’s in a name?, serie van bijeenkomsten, Witte de With, Rotterdam, 07.09.2017 t/m 31.12.2017

Zoë Dankert
is final editor at Metropolis M

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Metropolis M Magazine for contemporary art No 4 — 2020