Wes Hill in conversation with Joseph Breikers

Wes Hill: I think of you as an artist whose work revolves around the recreational symbols of the underclasses. In this sense, you share some things in common with the Brisbane based artist and Queensland University of Technology (QUT) lecturer Mark Webb. How important was he to the development of your practice?

Joseph Breikers: Pretty damn important. I really looked up to artists like Jenny Holzer and Bruce Nauman, but at the same time I was reading a lot of dime novels and was interested in the Jackass-like bravado or adolescent humour present in the language of interviews with figures from BMX and heavy metal. Mark really encouraged me to embrace this spectrum of influences.

Wes Hill: Your recent work Qaphqa (2011) is like an amalgamation of Holzer’s and Nauman’s bluntness, but it also has a jokiness that their works don’t have. Would you say that the staid aesthetic of minimalism functions for you more as a kind of straight man?

Joseph Breikers: I’m interested in the way humour can be affected by material treatment; does the material need to be inseparably part of the joke, or part of the delivery and slightly removed from the joke? Outhouses have looked like elongated cubes long before minimalism came along. So you could say that many minimalist practices actually allude to the tradition of the outhouse. In Qaphqa, I was more interested in the utilitarian design of composting toilets and the issues around construction and transportation … an artist walks into a bar and the barman says, ‘You made an outhouse that flatpacks?!’

Wes Hill: You frequently combine literary and lowbrow subjects. Why did you want to reference Franz Kafka in the title of this work?

Joseph Breikers: It was there mainly to throw people off the scent. It also alluded to Jorge Luis Borges’s The Lottery of Babylon (1941) in which ‘Qaphqa’ is the name given to a sacred toilet where people deposit (mis)information about other citizens. It made me think of the malicious scrawls in public toilets and how the aggression of the author is often lost. I adopted this kind of anaesthetised aggression when composing the text for the LED sign. My use of both literary and lower-class motifs stems, I think, simply from equal admiration. I go through phases when I get really tired of the literary so I resort to more lowbrow things to blow off some steam. It’s a huge part of the way I engage with the world, so naturally it becomes a part of the way I think about and make art.

Wes Hill: I get the sense, though, that you refer to heavy metal or to BMX culture with an extra sense of pride; like these things represent a more sincere, perhaps class-driven, aspect of your identity. But are you more disconnected than this? Do you focus on lumpen motifs more for their peculiar qualities that are underexplored?

Joseph Breikers: Oh I’m not disconnected at all, but whether or not that comes across in my practice depends on if it’s me with the work or the work by itself. Regardless, it allows me to drink beer or listen to Manowar and call it research, which is a very special thing indeed.

Wes Hill: Do you think there is too much pressure on artists to pinpoint their intentions or to direct the meaning of their work?

Joseph Breikers: Yeah, I guess that’s an extension of my interest in humour. On the whole, I think there is a fair amount of pressure on artists to explain themselves and I don’t think it’s all that helpful, for artists and audiences alike. At the same time, I don’t agree with complete silence. A few signposts here and there and if I want to contradict myself in the future, cloak it in a joke.

Wes Hill: I watched a TV panel show recently in which Ricky Gervais, Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock and Louis CK discussed the craft behind what they do. It made me realise how comedians rarely reveal the laborious effort and preparation that lies behind what appears to be spontaneous goofing. I also saw a connection between comedy and contemporary art in terms of performativity; both being analytically driven and centred on triggering something in the audience in a here and now kind of way. Would you agree?

Joseph Breikers: Yes, especially with comedians such as Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor who generated a level of anxiety and tension in the audience to the point that they became over-primed and ambivalent about their own laughter. This ability to trigger something in the audience is why I consider art-openings to be important. I’m there with the work, in a position to control or manipulate how it is read. I can mediate the work and I’m able to initiate some of the performative aspects of my making processes—the various attitudes that I adopt when I’m in the studio.

Wes Hill: Your work is a lot more slapstick than the routines of Pryor or Bruce, especially in your use of titles that resemble punch-lines. Whilst reflecting your resistance to issue-based art, this also heightens the performativity of aesthetic engagement; as if you are unconcerned about the lasting effect of your work after the initial encounter.

Joseph Breikers: Yes, but the slapstick sensibility is more akin to Bill Hicks’s anaesthetised or lethargic delivery than to Buster Keaton’s gymnastic approach, especially in derisively interactive sculptures such as Goyim (2011) and Very Best Definitive Ultimate (2009). I do try to promote the performativity of the viewing process through titles and specific installation decisions, to create the ‘here and now’ experience that you mentioned before. This immediacy obviously impacts on the way the work is thought about both during and after the encounter. But issues are for Korn fans and political types. I am neither.

Wes Hill: Bill Hicks was one of the most blatantly political comedians of the 20th century, closely followed by your other comedic references Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor. I’m interested in why you appreciate artistic creations that have strong political undertones (Nauman’s and Holzer’s work included) yet you refuse or deny this in terms of your own practice.

Joseph Breikers: At the moment, my interest in these practices has more to do with the way that they use language and engage with semiotics. Although this is still political, it’s in a way that is more difficult to articulate. How or whether you should use such terms is something that artists who use humour have to contend with. I’m still coming to terms with it but I have noticed a similar inclination to deflect or deny the political in the work of many of my peers.

Wes Hill: Tell me about your exhibition Acoustic and Luminous Effects (db project space, Sydney, 2010), which featured an office chair hanging from the ceiling with the word LOL stuck onto it. It aligned a contemporary brand of internet induced boredom with a more outdated, quasi-existentialist idea of the lowly paid office worker. What was the reasoning behind it?

Joseph Breikers: It all developed out of an interest in the performative aspect of making sculpture and the idea that a residue of this remains even if it is a static sculptural thing in a room. So I became concerned with finding ways to bring this temporal element to the fore but I wanted it to be really inane or to have this feeling of doodling. I suppose this is the ‘internet boredom’ aspect that you identified. Amanda Rowell curated the show and we both agreed that it would be nice to show the videos and sculptures together as they all emerged from a similar sensibility.

Wes Hill: What is the fake-rock material that you often use in sculptural works? It features in Night Meat (2008) and Everyone Makes a Little Dumbness (2009) and it seems to have the potential to become a signature medium for you.

Joseph Breikers: Yeah, but this is not something I want to overtly pursue. I have a fascination for the terrain making techniques and styles found in Warhammer [a tabletop war game comprising miniature fantasy war figures, conceived in the late 1980s]. I like the conflation of the familiar and the alien in this kind of medieval imagery, its miniature scale and boyish sense of domesticity and intimacy. My interest in Warhammer led to making these fake rocks as a sculptural material but also as a way of establishing a sense of terrain in the gallery space. What later became important was the process of making them. Whittling away rough hewn blocks of styrofoam feels like the gleefully flaccid antithesis of the archetypal image of the sculptor: shirtless in a fur loin-cloth and leather boots with mallet and chisel in hand as lightning strikes the horizon, on a quest to dominate marble or some other equally stubborn material.

Wes Hill: I particularly like your two video works Mimes (2008) and Satan is Real (2009), in spite of their fairly conflicting sensibilities. In Mimes you contribute to a well-known tradition of acting out in video art whereas in Satan is Real and Experiment in Terror (2009) you explore the impenetrable, document-like aesthetics found on YouTube and on video-blogs in general. Can you talk about your approach to video and any shifts that may have occurred over the last few years?

Joseph Breikers: I first started using video as a way to document activities that were these odd challenges to my physical capabilities. I found that I became more and more interested in the sense of characterisation that was occurring in these videos than in the actual activities themselves. I guess Mimes was one of the first instances in which I attempted to establish a set of parameters that were specifically geared towards the formation of a character of sorts, or maybe not even something as defined or complex as that, but more like an attitude or set of emotions. In more recent videos like Satan is Real and Experiment in Terror I am still trying to consciously project a certain attitude or set of emotions but they are more about this kind of idiosyncratic processing of things I’ve watched, read, heard, or otherwise experienced. 

Wes Hill: I think Paul McCarthy claims that something similar occurred in the progression of his video practice, with his more recent works focussing on the character that had naturally developed. Is your photographic work As Gaahl (2010) an example of what you mean when you speak of a growing concern for characterisation? 

Joseph Breikers: Yes, with this work I was interested in a kind of performed identity or projected front, as well as the complications that arise when this is employed as a means to accentuate the tropes of heavy metal culture.

Wes Hill: How would you like to end this?

Joseph Breikers: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CZ_VFJn2kJM

Joseph Breikers, Mimes, 2008. Video Still. Courtesy of the artist.

Joseph Breikers, Depicted in Space with No Visible Means of Support, 2010. Courtesy of the artist.

Joseph Breikers, Experiment in Terror, 2009. Video Still. Courtesy of the artist.

Joseph Breikers, As Gaahl, 2010. Courtesy of the artist.


Wes Hill is a writer and artist based in Hamburg, Germany. He recently completed a PhD in Art History at the University of Queensland, examining the delimitation of critical aesthetics.