Dialog in Common

San Keller: On Art, Audience & Lived Realities

San Keller [SK] is an action and conceptional artist and based in Zurich.
pressTranscript from telephone interview with Markuz Wernli Saitô [MWS] on Oct. 17, 2005.

The Long Home

The Long Way Home (2004): Participants and San Keller met at 10pm in the main hall of Grand Central Station on each last Friday of the month. The artist carried a sign with the action's title round his neck. Before embarking on the long way home the participants had to decide on the way to be taken home...

What importance has the audience (public) in your artistic ventures?
SK: The relationship between artist, work and audience within the public and art institutions is essential for me.

How do you feel about "inserting" art into people's lives?
SK: The term "inserting" seems not appropriate. I rather try to evoke, incite or to activate and gladly reach out to the audience if it makes sense.

What methods and processes work best for you for working in the public?
SK: I don't follow any particular methods but with my intuition which doesn't need to be refined.

How much can the audience influence your work?
SK: Usually I've got a concept, which precedes an action. This provides the project and the participants a frame which allows for different leeway from action to action. Basically it is mostly on the audience to decide if it wants to participate or not. If nobody partakes the concept remains a concept, or the action gives me the option to realize it on my own. The audience is not able to change the action's parameters. But its reactions can inspire me to new concepts.

Are there moments when you feel truly connected to your audience?
SK: In most of my actions I relate to the participants in the positive and negative. This very connection is the great advantage of action art. which ceases if I realize an object resulting from an action which includes the audience without my presence.

What is your motivation to include the participatory element of the public?
Even though I realize stand-alone projects I don't really like concluded projects. My relationship to art and society is an inquiring one. This leads into an openness. I have questions and look for answers by the participants.

The Long Way Home

... Who will be home first? Who will be the last to return home? What places will the journey lead through? Anyone living in New York was invited to participate. Each action will thus create a coincidental community that, starting at Grand Central Station, will make their long journey home together. Snugly returned, the homecomers will have to provide the remaining participants with a simple meal so as to ensure their safe way home.

The presence of the artist: I am looking for the exemplarily behavior also on a small scale. If I give my projects a framework with a certain understatement I create the basis for frictions and altering tension. There are actions where I am first the initiator and eventually a participant. There is a good sample within my series "Winterhelp" where I did an action named "The Long Way Home". Through flyers I invited people to meet one night a month at Great Central Station from where we would walk everybody home one person at a time. It was a great experience in dynamics of leadership. Usually we would stop by at the participants homes before moving on. What started out as a small group engaged up to 30 participants.

Another action called Bedtime Stories is more staged and theatrical. In a gallery is a bed with chairs around it. While San Keller is in bed people tell him good night stories until he falls asleep.

Forms of Documentation: I like to play with documentation and integrate it in the concept. The event San Keller Show the artist put paper-strips on a tree, each with the title his work. People would pick a strip and Keller would talk about that particular action. Here we have a form of narrated documentation which prompts the theme of transience. I also did a memory game consisting of relatively small photographs of works.

I guess I could have used an external camera man for The Long Way Home, but didn't do that. Instead the event is in people's memory and lives on in their anecdotes.

On the Sharjah Biennial Keller tried to turn the art museum inside out. He had loudspeakers installed on the outside of its building which broadcast information on art history.

Elements of Performance: Through performance the mundane can turn into a focal point. In the context of an exhibition movement allows to involve the vis-à-vis and establishes a bond between me, audience and work. Since I avoid self-contained and concluded works I embrace the process and outside involvement. This way the artwork originates not only from me but in conjunction with the audience.

Performance assists me to break off the isolation of the art world, and instead seek for connection and friction. As a concept artist I establish role plays with rules where I can be myself. Art drawn from life can be short or long lived. In the work Until The Last Dance I offer people to sign an agreement with me. Whenever these individuals hear a specific song they commit themselves to dance for the rest of their lives.

Frameworks: To work with the poetic element in my concepts allows me to create situations where there is space for participation and momentum. My work is about enabling experience and intensifying the moment. I am interested in the fundamentally existential level of being. The act of the ritual and its aspect of reiteration can make sense like in the action San Keller Sleeps at Your Workplace. We created a special situation on an ongoing basis.

Public Relations: My participants are usually voluntary and consent. I work in form of an offer which is grounded in our society's principle of choice. Provocation and overwhelm people doesn't interest me but open participation.

Art or not art – who cares? At the core of my actions is the idea. I don't use the term art, because it evokes a cliché and becomes more of an obstacle. I strive to have people partake in an idea which triggers incitement and awareness on a deeper level. Some people might see it as a mere experience, some might call it art. I work within and outside of traditional art institutions. I see myself as a part of the art establishments which I reframe to my own purpose. The Swiss Art Council just commissioned me for a project in Cairo. I will take 20 Swiss kitchen peeler with me which I intent to demonstrate and sell at the bazar there. The detailed course of the project I will define on the spot.

San Keller's actions are inspired by the potential of a given situation's influence on our social behavior. They encourage participants to throw overboard their normal code of conduct and to share an unusual experience with people they do not know. German curator Dorothea Strass describes San Keller's actions thus: "His works are complex, cheerful and melancholy at the same time. They pick up the concerns of the social sculpture and, in the most marvellous way, carry it into the 21th century." San Keller is a performance artist, who does cutting edge, ironic actions in public space. he always sets up challenges for himself, that will make him tickle his limits. He got known for his action San Keller Sleeps at Your Workspace, where he offered people to sleep in their offices, while they were working.

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