An Interview with Tino Sehgal

I am very excited to finally share an interview with you again. This time it is about no-one else than Tino Sehgal. I got to speak to him during the exhibition Down To Earth at Gropius Bau Berlin which he co-curated together with Thomas Oberender. Known for his no-fly policy, Sehgal has some intriguing thoughts about art and sustainability, where they come together and where they simply don’t. Enjoy the ride!

Introducing Tino Sehgal

Tino Sehgal is an artist and a curator. His work combines, dance, the human voice, debate and interaction. Sehgal’s art is widely known as living installations, social sculptures or “constructed situations” in the context of a museum or exhibition. It combines the presence of the audience with the physical architecture of the exhibition venue. It takes its creative breath from and into this commonly created space.

Sehgal is known internationally for his “ephemeral artwork” which is defined by the absence of material in explicitly designed situations. Situations that only persist within a limited timeframe – such as for the duration of an exhibition. An example of this is that any type of recording of his work is forbidden. Hence, you can only appreciate it live and with all of your five senses. After that it lives on only in your memory.

The museum: A temple of objects

What is exceptional about Sehgal’s work is its placement in museums or at exhibitions. This is to emphasise the dichotomy of presenting something which is not an object itself in a “temple of objects”. A rather political statement about the very purpose of this prestigious place called a museum. A place usually reserved to celebrate and marvel at objects. 

It does somewhat offer the analogy of modern societies which glorify material objects and possessions. Their value increase parallel to the amount of material richness they possess. However, according to Sehgal, precisely such a focus is the single source of today’s climate problem: The conversion of natural resources into material objects. 

Do it, but the sustainable way

Tino Sehgal found his approach towards sustainability through the reflection over actions rather than the message which an artwork might convey. Actions as a tangible contribution to sustainability, not a message that is at best subjectively interpreted and at worst holding up a (moral) mirror…which most often leads to cognitive dissonance. 

This means finding a reason why it is okay to look at melting icebergs in Greenland while drinking champagne at Art Miami. Sehgal considers the act of holding up a mirror to be rather arrogant and presumptuous. Because: Who really has the right to do so? 

As a rule of thumb: You gotta clean your own house first.

Furthermore, the thought behind it is: Pointing out a problem, does it not add up to the problem? Well it depends on the pointing, you may think. If natural resources are used in order to showcase the overconsumption of natural resources, does the message justify the means? Is it acceptable? A question you and me might be asking ourselves quite commonly. 

According to Sehgal, the way how something is produced is part of the meaning of production. So it does not hurt to look at the artist’s production process as well.

Sustainability is not about not consuming anything but about looking at what is acceptable.

Tino Sehgal

The Role of Art

Art is to promote the good life

Sehgal believes that the arts, at least in the Western world, are subsidised for a particular reason. That is: To promote social life and “the good life”. And “the good life” does also imply what we mean by sustainability. Namely, a good life for the generations to come. 

However, he says, the arts sector has not taken over any responsibility in dealing with or questioning the course of environmental degradation and its polluters. For scientists referred to the dooming climate crisis five decades ago, there have only been very few artists who have done work that tackle this issue. These are, for example, Agnes Denes and the Harrisons from the US or the German artist Joseph Beuys. 

Besides that, how has the cultural sector responded? In regards to the processes of the arts industry, the mega exhibitions and travel behaviours only happen to be criticised and questioned as of recently. Is this tendency rising?

[Concerning sustainability] I believe that the arts have missed the boat.

Tino Sehgal

Art is not for making statements

Using artwork for placing narratives or conveying messages is difficult and not effective, says Sehgal. Why? Because the perception of art is totally subjective. Like with a prism, it depends on how you look at it – with all your personal beliefs and experiences – for the light (or look) to break at the other end. This very personal look at an artwork influences the meaning that same piece has for the person. The output correlates directly with the input. Now add the artist’s message to it… 

How the spectator receives it is totally unpredictable.

Action Speaks Louder than Words

The thinking-doing gap

Therefore, why worry about adding a message? Why does the arts need to place “green” narratives in order to promote sustainability? Tino Sehgal believes such narratives not to be significant as they are already present in the people’s awareness – at least in the museum-goers’. The tricky and crucial part is the transition from narrative to action. Overcoming this gap will make the difference. 

Without the narratives the work of art can simply be a work of art.

Tino Sehgal

It makes me remember something that Harald Welzer said during a digital symposium in 2020: The more we think about and debate on a topic, the less we do about it. 

The name of the game is: Action

Hence, Sehgal concludes that it is about better modus operandi which are sustainable aka less resource-intensive and attractive. The availability of only human resources (and the absence of material in respect thereof) in Sehgal’s work does not make it less attractive, but more. Other operational processes concerning production or travelling can be included in this “more-attractive” category. Sehgal demonstrates it. And that’s at the heart of his work. The bonus: It is the attractiveness (and not the waiver or lack of something) which can inspire others to follow along.

Besides, it is exactly this shift which will change the course of sustainable action in the long-term.

Tino Sehgal also suggests that the reason why a person acts environmentally-friendly does not really matter. It is the action that matters, not the motivation behind it. For example, you are planning an upcoming trip. If you opt for the train rather than the plane out of ecological motivation or simply because you can work more comfortably or because it is cheaper (one day!) doesn’t make the difference. Avoiding CO2 does!

Taking New Decisions

On travelling

Based on the considerations just mentioned, Sehgal pursues a straightforward course of sustainable business practice. That is: Refraining from travelling by plane – without exception and since over 20 years. And not just him but his small team and all performers involved in his projects do, too – within Europe or to Japan. Period.

In the same manner as he chooses the least CO2-loaded travel alternative does he ask himself: What consumes the least electricity? That is, when he needs it…or if he needs it in the first place. Is it necessary to use a better display screen (in a museum) per se? Does it add value to the artwork itself and hence makes it an “acceptable” investment? Referring to his experience at Down to Earth in 2020, Sehgal says, it has rather added value to the exhibition not to use any screens at all… which they did.

What is necessary and acceptable is, as we know, quite subjective to everyone.

On environmental standards in museums

According to Sehgal, to truly question is also the common museum imperative that dictates a stable relative temperature of 20°C and a humidity of 50% – a so-called loan requirement. This is an international museum standard that defines 20°C/50% to be the perfect condition to preserve collections. It does determine if a certain painting or object may or may not be lent to another museum or exhibition hall. 

However, this one-size-fits-all rule is looked at warily because it is a result of negotiations rather than scientific research. At the negotiation table: The Bizot group (representing the world’s leading museums) and the International Council of Museums (ICOM). The good news is that the revision of this conservation guideline in favour of environmental protection is in progress. You can read about it in more detail in my soon to be published article.

So, to say it in other words, the museum’s day-to-day business is at stake if it cannot guarantee a stable 20/50 ratio. That is because no other institution would lend it anything. Each institution has to provide a data sheet or a so-called “condition report” which shows that the ratio is in place at all times. Yep, that means day AND night! By the way, it is the air conditioning that takes care of this ratio.

Making essential distinctions

Therefore, it is not unreasonable for Tino Sehgal to question if contemporary art does, by all means, have to adhere to the 20/50 ratio, too? The answer is: No, distinctions have to be made! The “perfect” condition largely depends on the type of artwork, the type of material used and its composition. Contemporary artworks are immensely different. It is that important because without distinguishing, the air-condition runs day in day out, no matter if it is a canvas painting or a live work.

This consumes an extremely high amount of energy…and creates a lot of CO2 in turn. 

Anyway I wonder: Art has been around much longer than air conditioning systems, right? How did they do it back in the days? It must have worked without it, otherwise we simply would not have ancient artworks preserved?!

Addressing barriers

After choosing a clean electricity provider, reducing the air conditioning has the highest leverage effect on a better carbon footprint of a museum. That is, less COproduced. Imagine how much energy (and CO2) can be saved if it ran only 50% of the time! And costs, mind you. 

But museums have no other choice; their hands are tied. They have to stick to the 20/50 rule. The trade-off, which is their reputation to some extent, would simply be too high. This is an externally imposed barrier that institutions need to specifically address – over and over again. Otherwise, its acceptance and significance would not be questioned at all and change would never be initiated.

New Debates Lead to New Rules

For travelling

Looking back at Tino Sehgal’s choice of travel medium: Can we not think about banning planes in our travel activities – at least within one country or flights between European neighbouring countries – for all? Many individuals like Sehgal, Andreas Greiner or Jérôme Bel do it already.

Also some cultural institutions, like the KBB with the Berliner Festspiele, Haus der Kulturen der Welt etc. encourage their employees to take the train for trips within Germany (actually taking the plane is forbidden for them). Or theatre director Katie Mitchell from the UK whose European shows travel only by train. 

The comparison: Plane vs. train

In order to get an idea of how much CO2 can be saved, let’s compare a round trip from Berlin to Cologne. By plane, the total distance is 940 km and 298 kg of CO2 are produced. By train, the total distance is 1150 km however only 27,6 kg of CO2 are produced. That is more than a 10-fold reduction!

Important to note is that the substances emitted at high altitudes have a greater impact on the greenhouse effect than when released on the ground. Therefore, the CO2 released from planes is multiplied by a factor of 3 to take into account the actual climate impact.

For funding

And it is again not quite unreasonable for Sehgal to question if such a (in environmental terms) harmful behaviour of flying should be encouraged at all? Given the fact that you can get to another European city by train within a day, why would any funding body still support air travel for short distances? Welcome to another famous barrier, not only in the arts & culture of course. It is: Money! 

Cultural institutions that receive state funding are to perform according to the “principle of economic efficiency and economy”. This means choosing the most cost-efficient option over others.

But is every “cheap” spending acceptable especially if it will cost us more in the future?

Luckily that this has already, let’s say softened in Germany. In terms of travelling the Federal Travel Expenses Act has been revised in 2020. It is now allowed to take the more costly travel alternative, the train ride, too without the need to explain your expenses. However, the organisations do not get more funding for such higher costs! They need to pay it from the same budget. Therefore the choice may still often depend on the price and not on the ecological motivation.

Closing the circle: About values, choices and debates

How much is an artist or an institution, how much are you willing to give? Here again, it is an investment which is totally subjective. It depends on many parameters and aspects. What are the rules? What’s the trade-off? Do you base your actions on your values? Tino Sehgal does not need a sign saying “environmentally-friendly”, nor does his art. His actions speak louder than any such signs. And there is something equally important that he does: He talks about his why in public – over and over again!

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