Last June, on the train to Venice, I was reading with little timingThe Radicant, Nicolas Bourriaud’s last essay published already in 2009 by Sternberg Press. A few hours later, I was in the charming courtyard of the Collegio Armeno, which houses the Icelandic pavilion of the 54th Venice Biennal: Libia Castro & Ólafur Ólafsson’s exhibition Under Deconstruction.
In the attempt to rework the debated notions of multiculturalism, postmodernism and globalization in an aesthetic framework and to propose their overtaking in an “altermodernity” on a global scale (built through cooperation and translation between different cultural identities), Bourriaud outlines the traits of a twenty-first century aesthetics that he defines “radicant”: a term that defines “those plants that do not depend on a single root for their growth but advance in all directions on whatever surfaces present themselves by attaching multiple hooks to them, as ivy does”. 
If the economic globalization, the increasing mobility and the current communication possibilities have laid the foundations of a new transnational culture (heralding a spreading standardization and not free from nationalist or identitarian revivals), certainly art didn’t remain indifferent to these dynamics. The contemporary artist is no longer an expression of the cultural tradition he/she comes from, but rather of the context where he lands and of his constant mobility. He adapts perfectly to the soil that temporarily hosts him in a process of continuous uprooting and re-rooting. He relates to the context in dialogic and intersubjective ways. He responds to the dematerialization and the growing precariousness of everyday experience with equally precarious ways of thinking and producing. He refuses to limit himself to a single medium and occupies different disciplines and cultural spheres. “The artist has become the prototype of the contemporary traveler, homo viator, whose passage through signs and formats highlights a contemporary experience of mobility, displacement, crossing”. 
Ólafur Ólafsson & Libia Castro would seem perfect examples of this radicant aesthetics: the couple, she Spanish, he Icelander, have long lived in Rotterdam and now are based in Berlin. However, if this mobility was limited only to biographical data and did not deeply affect the artists’ work, the use of this botanical label would have been quite superficial. But it’s not like this.
The redefinition of forms, intervention strategies, media and content on the basis of the context is one of the most noticeable features of Castro & Ólafsson’s research. The issues addressed in their works relate to the broad dynamics between global and local, inclusion and exclusion that are at the core of the political and economical sphere tout-court (work, migration, nationality, citizenship…), but these issues are inflected in very different ways on the basis of the local context in which they work. Let’s take Your Country Doesn’t Exist, one of the three works that make up the exhibition in Venice. It is a project first started in 2003 in Istanbul, at Platform Garanti CAC, and then migrated from one country to another – Bosnia and Herzegovina, Hungary, Netherlands, Iceland and United States, among others – taking on new forms (from graffiti to printed T-shirts, up to billboards and television commercials) and new meanings and associations at each transmigration.
In Venice, Castro & Ólafssonhave produced a performance that plays with the stereotypical image of the lagoon city and, at the same time, questions the international dimension of the Biennial itself. An opera singer passes through the city canals in a gondola singing a serenade, accompanied by guitar and trumpet players. The music was composed by Karolina EirÃksdÃ³ttir, while the lyrics were written by the artists appropriating a text by Antonia Majaca. The exhibition presents the video of the performance, but the project is further embodied in a neon writing on the facade of the exhibition venue and a painting made, on request of the artists, by the ambassador of Iceland with the text “Your country does exist” (the word “not”, in this case, is deleted due to the impossibility of the ambassador to deny the existence of his country of origin).
In its various materializations, the project deals with the issue of citizenship, thus questioning national identity in a national pavilion; at the same time, it intertwines itself with the city of Venice by reconfiguring some of its symbols; it sneaks into the diplomatic dynamics highlighting them through paradox; it addresses the user in different languages, as in airport announcements, thus revealing how the international tourist, more than the stable citizen, is the true inhabitant of a city like Venice.
The theme of national identity comes back in the Constitution of the Republic of Iceland (2008-2011), a video documenting the choral performance of the eighty-one articles that make up the present constitution produced in cooperation with the Icelandic television. Like Your Country Doesn’t Exist, it was created with the collaboration of composer Karolína Eiríksdóttir who adapted the text of the constitution in a piece for soprano, baritono, chamber choir, piano and bass. The project was started after the financial crisis that hit Iceland in 2008 and assumes an additional significance in light of the process of rewriting the constitution through crowdsourching which is currently tacking place in the country: an appropriation and reconfiguration of the text of greater symbolic (and legal) significance for the nation state to return it to a wider audience at a time of greater participation from below to the definition of its foundations.
The third work on display in Venice was produced last year in Italy, in Naples. It’s called Exorcizing Ancient Ghostsand it’s a sound sculpture installed on the roof terrace of the exhibition venue. Wires connected to headphones come out from a terracotta amphora. Wearing them, the visitor can listen the voices of two couples who, during a sexual act, recite excerpts drawn from legal, literary, theatrical and philosophical Greek texts – from Plato to Aristotle to Thucydides – focusing on the rights of women and the stranger’s status. The voices oscillate from reading the texts and the physical participation in the sexual act; a process of negotiation between the body and the narration’s instances that makes the revelation of the deep roots of women’s condition and Xenophobia issues in Western culture even more alienating.
Elena Biserna: I would start from Under Deconstruction because I think the exhibition perfectly shows many central aspects of your work. First of all, the range of media you use: not only you don’t make any distinction among different media – adopting, from time to time, video, sound recording, performance, ads, television … – but also, in some cases, your works are reconfigured and reworked migrating from one medium to another. Constitution of the Republic of Iceland, for example, was initially proposed as a performance, then broadcasted on television, and is now presented as a video installation. I suppose that this kind of approach is related to your education but, perhaps, is it also the result of a wider interest in the appropriation and subversion of cultural and communication codes (as the exhibition’s title seems to reveal)?
Libia Castro & Ólafur Ólafsson: Actually we do make distinction among different media, and very consciously, but we chose to work with more than one. We went over our background in the visual arts and we have a conceptual and multimedia approach. We are more interested in the possibility to articulate ideas and concepts in different media, than in reflecting only on a particular medium. This approach allows us to question different issues and to problematize and challenge different contexts: the context in which we work – the art context – and, as an extension, other contexts as well, so to challenge the boundaries of art. Regarding Constitution of the Republic of Iceland, it appeared also several times on radio, before it was filmed and broadcast on TV. It has never been played in its entirety though on the radio but was used, for example, as theme-music for the beginning of a weekly program on democracy and the constitution. A separate radio program was also made about the music piece and the constitution with interviews with us, the composer and lawyers and political scientists.
Elena Biserna: In one of the essays included in the catalogue accompanying the exhibition, Susan Leeb quotes an expression that you used to characterize your artistic strategy: “sweet subversion”. Do you refer to this appropriation of different media forcing them from the inside?
Libia Castro & Ólafur Ólafsson: “Sweet subversion” is an expression we sometimes use to describe our relationship with context and the structures that create the context conditions. As we can see since the beginning of the 20th century in Marcel Duchamp and the Avant-Gardes artists’ work, it’s impossible to separate art from the platform where it is created. We don’t think of our work (at least until now, things may change!) as an autonomous entity. For us it is very important to understand the links among the different elements that constitute the art system, the artists within it, its economy, etc. This immediately brings you to the rest of society. It’s a relational aspect.
Elena Biserna: I think that this is very evident in your exhibitions. In Venice, the boundaries between the exhibition context and the city are really permeable: the performance Your Country Doesn’t Exists intertwine the exhibition with the city and, on the other side, the video puts the outside in the exhibition space. The boundaries between what is inside and outside from the exhibition space are porousÃÂ¢Ã¢âÂ¬ÃÂ¦ And I find this a recurring feature in your way of working (thinking of 20 minutes as well).
Libia Castro & Ólafur Ólafsson: Yes, this is a constant, from the beginning. Since we started working together, we tried to understand the relationship between inside and outside, thinking that the art context could give us a platform to work outside as well.
The piece Your country doesn’t exist isn’t about the city, but still portrays the city and uses the space and also the conceptual aspects of the representation of Venice in a very specific way. Of course the idea of using a gondola and a serenade, appropriating this stereotyped image of Venice, comes from the city: we wanted to make a public work so we worked in dialogue with the place. But, for obvious reasons of protection, speculation, regulations, property, tourism etc. making an artwork in public space in Venice it’s not the simplest thing, which makes it also a challenge. And one rainy autumn day, when a gondola passed us by with a singer singing serenades for the tourists on board, a seed for an idea was born.
The performance was made four times: twice in May – we shot the video during these two performances – and twice during the opening days. The gondola circulated in different parts of the city and through the Giardini for ca five hours each time. It was not staged in a fixed place, it moved around the city so people may have encountered it whether they were aware of it or not, but also some people would maybe follow the performance for a while, till it maybe disappeared round a corner where you can’t follow on foot. The recording of the serenade was also broadcasted through a radio platform created by a Danish artist.
Actually, at first, we had planned also to broadcast the audio recording of the performance on the facade of the Santa Lucia railway station and at the Giardini, but at the end we couldn’t. We got verbal permission but, two weeks before, they withdrew it due to planned restorations of the entrance roof. For the Giardini, we had a written permission to install the work, but then the organization told us that it was not possible, without any evident reason. We guess the reason is a sort of hierarchy among the artists working in the pavilions inside the Giardini and the others. The Biennale organizers, on one side, want to open the exhibition to other countries that may not fit in the Giardini, but then they don’t make many efforts to change the exhibition structure, the Giardini is an enclosed territory.
Elena Biserna: On the other side, every time I go to the Venice Biennale, I find that going to the events and pavilions outside from the Giardini or the Arsenale is the most exciting part because you have the occasion to discover beautiful spaces and to explore the city…
Libia Castro & Ólafur Ólafsson: What happens outside of the Giardini goes in parallel with the structure of the other Biennals around the world, many of which work more in the city occupying different spaces in dialogue with other urban processes, histories etc. In my opinion, in Venice as well, they should open up the Giardini and remove the fence that separates them from the city.
Elena Biserna: Talking about Biennials: what about your experience at Manifesta7 in Rovereto? You produced a work in situ, Caregivers (2008), and a work in public space, Uterus Flags (2008). I guess that experience was different as Manifesta usually promotes the production of site-specific works and as the exhibition curated by Adam Budak was based on an analysis of public space dynamics and on more flexible exhibition strategies
Libia Castro & Ólafur Ólafsson: Yes of course it was a different experience, Manifesta is a young biennial, Venice is the oldest biennial, their conception differs 100 years in time! Now we worked in the frame of the Venice Biennial, but with our small team to create a solo presentation, a context within a context; we were in the national representations package, while Manifesta is a big international collective curated show more comparable to the curated show in Venice but, as we say, with a very different structure.
Manifesta, opposite to Venice, is a traveling biennial, it needs each time to recreate its platform in dialogue and in negotiation with the new host, with the new conditions and the new context of the chosen place. In the case of the national pavilions, that have to find their site in the city of Venice, there are similarities again since you have to work with a given site which has its own histories, owners and context within the city having nothing to do with the Giardini, the Arsenale or the biennial for that matter. You have to set up a temporary infrastructure in a foreign land. The things that you encounter in the city are many – life in its complexity – and all is certainly not there for the sake of the exhibition, as in the Giardini. They have their own life, motives and purposes. In the city, you have to find your way through and negotiate with the people and, of course, with the market speculation, that the very Biennial brings in by expanding into the urban space. So the question of the space of the city and in the city is present in a very different way than in the fixed pavilions.
Elena Biserna: We talked about the range of media you use… Anyway, songs and music seem to have a prominent role in the works on display in Venice and also in Caregivers, where a newspaper article describing the phenomenon of foreign so-called “caregivers” in northern Italy is sung by a soprano and a chorus of female voices accompanied by an oboe. Maybe we could go beyond this and speak of a more general interest in the oral performance of written texts, as in Exorcising Ancient Ghosts. Human voice is often one of the protagonists of your works. Where does this interest stem from?
Libia Castro & Ólafur Ólafsson: This interest comes from sound in it self and then from being interested in humans and their lives, histories, conditions etc. But we also wanted to go beyond the object and to not objectify and we came across audio as being, in the context of visual arts, in a certain way less, or differently, objectifying than the photograph or the video image; and also for its sculptural and material, or immaterial, qualities; of traveling through space instead of being fixed in its place, or just having one line of projection like video, for example, whose image has a more fixed format. We have been working with sound for a long time: sound was part of the environments we did during the first years of our collaboration; then we used it as a means of intervention in public space. We usually used concrete sound in relationship with space, as a way of shaping it or intervene in it, more than as a narrative element.
The element of human voice as a direct narrative, instead, was first used in 2004, in a series of installations and as an element of relational sculptures called Bosbolobosboco; these are sculptures where people can sit or lie on and listen to storytellings. We started to make portraits of migrants and elderly people in Iceland, undocumented and political refugees in the Netherlands through their narrations, instead of their portrayed image. We thought it would be more interesting to let their voices and stories become elements of the space, of our installations or sculptures, rather than fixating them as images, objectifying them. Their stories and their voices were the material and content we wanted to work with.
In Exorcising Ancient Ghosts, the audio-sculpture installed on the roof terrace of the Icelandic pavilion, one of the main interesting aspects is the combination of the (abstract) concrete sexual voice of the body – the bodily physical and emotional sounds of the couple while having sex – and the same voice that carries the narration reading the ancient texts simultaneously. These two elements are strongly juxtaposed and intertwined in the act of performing, bringing something alienated together and creating a new reading and experience of both elements through their new relation… We don’t have to forget that the content of what they are reading reflects on the body and its identity. They are reading a collage made of Athenian texts of the 4th and 5th century B.C. about women, foreigners and their relation and lack of rights in Athens.
Elena Biserna: This strong presence of the body seems to be a recurring theme in your work, starting from the very beginning: I think of Tikk Takk (1998), a huge glass bottle filled with excrements and other bodily excretions…
Libia Castro & Ólafur Ólafsson: The work you mention was actually about the abject qualities of the body, the abject body: the insides out. It is a subversive work because it brings out the detritus of the body, what in our culture should be hidden. It is a very important work for us and it was created through a dialogue and collaboration with different people: we worked with the anatomy museum, we had to go through a bureaucratic process in the Netherlands and Iceland to be able to transport the work… It was not easy. But also for us, personally and emotionally, it was challenging. This work put the body in a critical and ironic light.
Elena Biserna: I find that irony and humour are often important in your work: do they have any role in creating a critical feedback in the audience, in your opinion?
Libia Castro & Ólafur Ólafsson: Our projects often reveal all the absurdities that come out from different kinds of conflicts. A sort of healthy humour for disastrous absurdities, along with the awareness that these conflicts are often difficult to be solved. Irony is also a critical tool, of course, and it is also a feeling of emancipating from something that seems to be again and again impossible to solve. Laughing as an attempt to survive the sadness provoked by endless catastrophes, human injustice and stupidity, by showing the dark and paradoxical side of things, the hypocrisy of things. Maybe, today, we sometimes forget, in the overflow of commercial media, that comedians of all kinds have played and continue to play an important role in subverting power. Those comedians inspire us a lot.
Elena Biserna: I would like to come back the contextual nature of your work. In an essay on Gabriel Orozco, the art historian Jean-Pierre Criqui wrote that, “The artist becomes an essentially mobile individual whose peregrinations form the basis of, or at least influence strongly, the work of art”.  Perhaps we could say something similar of your work: themes and form seem to relate strictly to the particular situations you find yourself living or working inÃÂ¢Ã¢âÂ¬ÃÂ¦
Libia Castro & Ólafur Ólafsson: This is partly true and there are several reasons for this. On one hand, this has to do with the economy of the art world and artists historically being traveling figures, performing and selling their skills to audiences and mecenas, but, on the other, also with our personal histories. We came from two different countries, Iceland and Spain, and when we started working together we were living in another country, the Netherlands. We both had the need to understand where we were coming from and to create works in these three different places.
On the other side, this is also related to the art system, a network of possibilities that allowed us to create works on site and in different locations: an art economy which, in its present contemporary form, is the result of the global economy and of the general mobility of people. When we started working together, in the second half of the 1990s, the mobility of artists working in different places and doing ephemeral works on site was already established in the art world.
This approach was a sort of surviving strategy, in a way, but also the result of a personal history linked to our “Erasmus generation”, at least here in Europe. Increased mobility definitely influenced our life and our work and when we reflect on sites we actually often reflect on this mobility, the different rights and opportunities that people have to move and related issues, which are the product and result of a global neo-liberal economic system we live in. This, of course, is paradoxical because in part we are critical to all the constant moving, but we are living and surviving in that way and enjoying it.
We realized that the art world is a mirror and is structured on the site conditions as well. To put it simply, a contemporary art centre in Istanbul is not the same as one in London, though they are still both contemporary art centers. We became very interested in the economical, political and cultural constituencies of places and started to work in dialogue with them. We always relate our questions to the different sites we work in; for us, it is also a way to learn about the world from the world. But also in the place where we are based – though we come from other countries and have other mother tongues – we invested a lot in the local scene and life, running initiatives with others artists and taking part in social or politically minded activities etc…
Elena Biserna: Since the issues you deal with are usually related to the particular site you work in, I can’t but ask if the themes of female condition and the strangers’ status in Exorcising Ancient Ghosts (which was produced in Naples, in Italy) are linked to the fact that, in your opinion, these problems appear more urgent and relevant in Italy than in other countries…
Libia Castro & Ólafur Ólafsson: No it isn’t like that, Exorcising Ancient Ghosts relates for us to all western culture; that was the point why we did the work. Maybe we could say that the female condition is more serious in Italy than in Iceland, for example. But we would say that xenophobia and racism are big issues in the whole Western Europe today… We see what has just happened in Norway…
Elena Biserna: On the other hand, your works often reveal the production conditions. I think particularly of Constitution of the Republic of Iceland: the video shows the studios where you worked; the camera lingers over the equipment, the cameramen, yourself, revealing the backstage, the whole situation. But maybe this is even more evident in other of your works, such as Everybody Is Doing What They Can (2008)…
Libia Castro & Ólafur Ólafsson: This is related to our interest in the conditions that create the contexts, situations and the visual arts as well, as I was saying before. It is a self-reflective attempt to question and understand how works are constructed and to constitute a dialogue with the participants or with the viewer. In this way, the viewer is forced to become active in the reception of the piece, to make a journey reflecting on how the works of art are constructed and what are the conditions behind them (as well as on construction and conditions at a larger level, reflecting directly onto life).
Elena Biserna: So a sort of meta-linguistic attitude which creates awareness in the viewerÃÂ¢Ã¢âÂ¬ÃÂ¦
Libia Castro & Ólafur Ólafsson: An attempt to show to the viewer that the work he/she is watching is constructed; an attempt to reflect on the concreteness of the artwork itself and its relation to the world around it; to suggest that everything is a construct and to not take things for given or granted.
Elena Biserna: That leads us to the dichotomy between documentation and representation, and the way you play with the two, in my opinion. Several artists working with social and political issues make use of documentary forms. In your work, instead, representation has a very important role and this puts your work in relationship with cinema and theatre as well. You also often mix genres ÃÂ¢Ã¢âÂ¬Ã¢â¬Å” documentary, journalism, but also fiction and video-clip. I find that this highlights the fact that documentary is never pure, is never just documentation but is always already representation, translation. I think this is really explicit in your work. Would you agree?
Libia Castro & Ólafur Ólafsson: Yes, documentation is representation. There is no way to document something without creating a representation of it, whether you do it in an unaware way or, instead, consciously questioning the nature of representation and of documents and the way they are constructed. If documentation is representation, then the question is how to deal with that: in our case we reflect on this and try to underline the conditions, the contexts, the subjective preferences and the ideological dimension behind representation. But fiction is never pure from documentation, or reality, either. As Jean-Luc Godard emphasized, fiction film is a documentation of acted out stories, events, or scenes if you like.
Elena Biserna: This reminds me of Bertolt Brecht, I read you are interested in his work. In an interview, Ellen Blumenstein asks you about his notion of “estrangement” . I would like to follow up her suggestion and ask you, instead, about Brecht’s model for his epic theatre: the “Street Scene”. I think this model resonates with your way of working. Brecht describes an everyday situation – a passer-by demonstrating how an accident he has just witnessed took place to a crowd – and argues, “If the scene in the theatre follows the street scene in this respect then the theatre will stop pretending not to be theatre, just as the street-corner demonstration admits it is a demonstration (and does not pretend to be the actual event). The element of rehearsal in the acting and of learning by heart in the text, the whole machinery and the whole process of preparation: it all becomes plainly apparent.”
Libia Castro & Ólafur Ólafsson: Yes, his work is certainly relevant for our work. The self-reflective and concrete nature of the artworks is something that also visual artists know very well. Brecht takes all this really far, building a whole aesthetic discourse on the epic theatre, developing a creative strategy of self-reflection and self-deconstruction, and revealing the ideological discourse behind any work of art. But, in his case, this was also instrumentalised: he had a political, Marxist agenda, and reflected on the world through that perspective by constructing a representative model out of a marxists discourse. We are not dogmatic on that, is an open frame that we are dealing with, more anarchic. We know we are maybe not exactly giving an answer to your question, though.
Elena Biserna: I am curious to know if you ever use scripts or rehearsals for your performances.
Libia Castro & Ólafur Ólafsson: This depends very much on the work. Some are everyday performances: we are very interested in portraying people at work and reflecting on working conditions, as the artist Allan Sekula for example. Several of our videos are born from this interest and document people at work. In other performances, such as the musical pieces – Your Country Does Not Exists, Constitution of the Republic of Iceland, Caregivers and Lobbyists, of course the musicians rehearse on their own, in our absence, or with their director or conductor and, in some cases, with the composer. Then, near to the performance or filming, we are often involved in the rehearsals as well. We also sometimes discuss the work before they start rehearsing.
With Exorcising Ancient Ghosts, we did prepare the performers for the performance, but we didn’t let them rehears the performance itself. In that sense, it is not theater; with our assist and instructions they prepared themselves to read together, to be aware of each other while reading, an of their interpretations of the text. We also made them prepare by doing physical exercises while reading the text together. They must always improvise on who reads what part and what they read together. But we didn’t make them rehears sex part.
Elena Biserna: How about your collaboration with composer KarolÃÆ’ÃÂna EirÃÆ’ÃÂksdÃÆ’ÃÂ³ttir? How does it work and how has it started and developed during the years?
Libia Castro & Ólafur Ólafsson: We know each other very well and we are friends since a long time. We had collaborated with other musicians for some pieces before working with her and we had done a deconstruction of the Iceland national anthem. When we thought of contacting a classical composer of contemporary music for Constitution of the Republic of Iceland it was just natural for us to involve Karolína and it was very easy to start a dialogue with her. Ólafur and her know each other since he was a teenager. Her daughter, who is the pianist in the piece, was his girlfriend at that time. We wanted to find a way to develop a musical performance that could be empathical and emotional but, at the same time, could reflect on the constitution by bringing in distance through the alien element of music.
The work decontextualizes the constitution and transforms it in such way that you can observe it and, at the same time, experience an emotional poetical and absurd journey, released through the music. Both these aspects were crucial for us: to work with distance and nearness. Brecht’s ideas, among other, were important for the work. Then we continued to collaborate with Karolína for some of the following works.
Elena Biserna: I appreciate the way you are able to create a balance between conceptual and the formal dimensions: besides its critical content, your work is also appealing from a visual or musical point of view. My last question is about future: could you tell us something about your forthcoming projects?
Libia Castro & Ólafur Ólafsson: We are working on several collective exhibitions and on three personal exhibitions. The first personal one will take place in November at the Centro Andaluz de Arte Contemporáneo in Sevilla. The concept addresses the margins and the city, a theme that was quite central in our earlier works and that, later on, led us to deal with society at large. It will be interesting because we will revisit the beginning of our collaboration and how it has developed during the years. Then the Venice Biennial show will be traveling to the National Gallery in Iceland, opening in January. The third solo show will be at TENT–Center for the Visual Arts in Rotterdam, planned for next spring. Along with showing recent work we might produce a new piece for that show. We will be exhibiting in Umeå and Graz this October and we just came back from Copenhagen where we worked on a new iteration of Your Country Doesn’t Exist: a collaboration with the Icelandic ambassador to Denmark that will be shown in the group exhibition Terms of Belonging opening the 2nd of September at Overgaden Institute of Contemporary Art in Copenhagen.
 – Si veda: Franko B, Broken Boundaries, http://www.franko-b.com/text/cw_broken_boundaries.htm.
 – Jean-Pierre Criqui, “Like a Rolling Stone: Gabriel Orozco”, in ArtForum, n. 8, April 1996.