An Interview with Renzo Martens
Conducted by Angelina Xing
Renzo Martens is a Dutch artist and filmmaker. World-renowned museums and festivals have featured his films, which are set in far-flung locales like Chechnya and the Congo. His works have drawn attention to the developmental disparities around the globe as well as the relationship between those disparities and the act of making art. Moreover, as the Director and Co-Founder of the Institute for Human Activities—situated in Amsterdam, Brussels and Kinshasa—he runs an art-based development program in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. His program aims to fuel economic growth through artistic production, improving the lives of the locals in homes around the Institute. At Yale, Martens is furthering his work for the Institute by connecting with academics and entrepreneurs.
The Politic: Why did you choose to apply to serve as a Yale World Fellow?
First, the more practical reason I applied is that I was invited to a conference at Yale Law School in 2012 to give a presentation about a film I had made. It was a great conference organized by The Schell Center for Human Rights. Then, I met Valerie Belanger, the Program Manager for the World Fellows. We had a long conversation afterwards, and we both figured it might be a good idea for me to apply.
The other reason is that, for the last ten years, I’ve been working in film. More and more, my films are becoming interventions in social realities. I do not only film reality; film itself creates the social conditions into reality. I also film in difficult terrain. For instance, the last long film I made was in the Congo, the DRC [Democratic Republic of Congo]. As such, one needs a lot of knowledge not just about filmmaking, which I have, but also about political strategies, fundraising, legal issues, and generally about how to manage a bigger operation. These are all the things I did somewhat intuitively. But it was certainly time for me to step up that game a little bit. So that’s why I applied.
The Politic: You’re currently serving as the Artistic Director at the Institute for Human Activities. The IHA is an organization devoted to creating a space in which locals can participate in creating art as a means of addressing the problems with certain Western productions of art and its unjust economic consequences. Can you explain what these problems are and how your art responds to them?
People such as me—Western-educated, mostly male and white—have access to the art world outside of art capitals like New York and Berlin. They can make films or interventions, or stage beautiful collaborative projects in the periphery of the world. These places could be the outskirts of New York, a city in Peru, or in my case, the Congo. Artists stage and create a lot of commentary on inequalities in the world. In and of itself, this is a good thing because obviously there are many problems in this world, and art is one way of addressing them. Although many artists try to stage such collaborative projects through photos or videos, the trouble with these projects is that more often than not, the economic benefits of such art pieces are not found in the places where the piece the art intervenes or stages an alternative. More often than not, their economic benefits are found in New York and Berlin.
For example, I can make a film about labor conditions in the DRC. But in the end, a piece like that is going to be shown in a museum or a gallery in Berlin or New York. Art pieces like that can create a whole economy in a way. Suppose I write about them through a dissertation. This creates a whole intellectual discourse, which is one thing, but it also creates an economic turnover. In fact, many artists, scholars, and others live off work like that. So even if a piece of art exposes a new intervention in the Congo, in the end it creates better work opportunities in New York and Berlin than it improves the labor conditions in the Congo. There exists this kind of a gap, [one] that exists not only in art but other fields that attempt intervention in new places. This is the gap that I would like to address.
The Politic: How is investing in the local people different from, or more effective than, giving political agency to a government or a non-profit, for instance?
While it’s true that UNICEF [the United Nations Children’s Fund] and CARE [Cooperative Assistance and Relief Everywhere] intervene in the DRC, the biggest chunk of any sum of money they will spend will be spent in the U.S. or Switzerland. And for this reason, they have a far bigger impact in terms of helping people live better lives in Geneva or in New York than they do for people in the Congo. Again, that is the gap common to other things besides art, and I would like to generate knowledge about it.
The Politic: How does the art created by locals address the gap you describe and generate economic benefits?
The IHA is not only working to close the gap, though it is a big chunk of what we do. We’re building an art center in the Congolese rainforest, and we’re asking for local people to participate. These include people who work for logging companies or on big plantations—subsistence farmers who make, let’s say, $20 a month. We ask them, and then we provide them with the opportunity to not only do what their normal job involves but also to critically reflect on their labor conditions by making drawings or videos or performance pieces. We can show them in presentations in some of the most prestigious art institutes in the world. Just imagine that a guy who has been working for 10 or 20 years on a plantation, earns about $200 a year with a full-time job, and then makes a drawing about that experience. So if we can show that drawing and then sell it to a gallery, one critical drawing about the worker’s lifestyle and his labor conditions can make five or ten times the money he’s earning from one year of work. As such, critical reflection on one’s life and labor conditions can be far more beneficial than just performing the labor one’s required to do.
We hope that the economic benefits of artistic critique can have an impact on the places where the critique came from. Now, we’re setting up a whole school and an art center with art and dance studios. We’ve invited not only very prominent artists from around the world but also local artists who know a lot about the local situation and how the local people express themselves.
We’re building a platform, actually, a platform for artistic corruption, which does two things. One thing is just what I described. It makes sure that critical thinking becomes beneficial for the poorest people on this planet. The other thing we do is invite many of the same artists that were engaged with issues of shifting labor dynamics or the like, so that we can build a very similar institution to the ones you have in New York and Berlin. But we do it, I would say, with some of the poorest people in this world, hoping that the people we invite—the artists and critics and writers—will really reform and improve the intellectual and artistic work they’re already doing. For many people who comment on these issues, it’s really an abstraction. You can critique anything and everything. But what does this really mean, this artistic critique, if it has no impact on the lives of the people who live in the situation that you comment upon? So if people come to a place like that, they will probably be stimulated or pushed to make the artistic critique a little more poignant vis-à-vis the living conditions that they see. Whether you paint beautiful women on a canvas or make something very abstract, you couldn’t do it if it weren’t for half of the world’s population that work for you for free. Many of these people could never even send their kids to primary school. So it’s quite important for artists to come to terms with the mode of production of their own practice, of their own art-making. Doing it in a place with people who work for us and basically make no money off of it is very, very informative.
The Politic: What made your film “Episode III: Enjoy Poverty” so provocative? What type of reactions did your film receive from the local people in the Congo? Did these reactions differ from foreign audiences at film festivals or in the media?
The film showed worldwide. I think it was aired in 25 countries on TV, especially in Europe in many of the most important art museums and film festivals, and in the U.S. a little less.
I think people were a little bit stunned. People think that I’m a cynic because I tell very poor people in Congo that the best thing they can do is try and enjoy their poverty rather than fight it because the poverty alleviation industry is a multi-million dollar industry, and the poor don’t reap much benefit from it. I suggested to these people that if they could take ownership of this poverty, then maybe they [could] make some money off it.
Many people who see it here say, ‘Oh…You’re taking away hope from these poor Africans and you can’t do that.’ It’s really hard for me…If you really want me to get into the details, I would have to describe the film, and I can’t do that.
In the Congo, however, it’s been shown a lot, too. It was on TV in the DRC and a number of shows and presentations. I think to some degree the reactions were the same as here. People were shocked by what they saw. People who have a TV, for example, probably have enough money to feed themselves, so they’re not so aware of many other people in their country.
But, on the other hand, people really liked the film because I played some kind of a role in this film myself. And it’s the role that people are really well acquainted with: a white filmmaker going into the Congo, coming up with a novel theory, and then leaving at the end. That’s a very common thing to see, a white man coming in with ideas and then leaving a few years later. So the film, in a way, kind of reproduces that cliché. As such, many people thought the film was quite comic.
The Politic: Was that part of your intention, to make it a self-parody? What was your intention in making this film a self-parody, and how that can be effective in terms of making people more aware of the type of complicity that art can have?
Yeah, there is some element of satire in it. But the most disturbing thing is not that it’s satirical, but that the audience is not in on the joke.
If you look at a Borat movie or Michael Moore, you—as a member of the audience—you’re watching the film and you know the joke. You know the guy in the film is making a fool of a third party, of somebody else. And you know it because he announced it well in advance that he’s going to play a role. Now, in the work that I do, I really don’t announce in advance that I’m going to do something for it to be satirical, right? I don’t do that. So the viewers are shifting up and down between that it’s real and that it’s…some kind of a Jackass thing. Because you’re not in on the joke, the viewer becomes the battlefield rather than the third party you can make fun of. So that’s just a different relation that I want to establish with the viewer.
The Politic: Is there something specific to filmmaking that is able to be self-critical or that accomplished your goal better than other forms of art?
Well, I like to comment on media images, and in order to do that, I need to use these media images. Otherwise we wouldn’t know what I was talking about. So I use media clichés, in a way. I reproduce them to a certain degree. If I didn’t, then you wouldn’t know what I’m referring to. On the one hand, I reproduce a certain imagery, but I also show how this imagery is constructed. Who benefits from it, and who doesn’t benefit from it? And I would like people that allow themselves to be filmed to be in the film. So as a filmmaker, you’re always in the middle of two parties: between the people who want to be filmed, and the people who want to then watch the film. And these two parties have very different backgrounds and very different agendas. They want different things from that film. In this film, I try to show how such jobs are being done. In a way, I deconstruct how such images are being produced.
The Politic: In you work, do you identify more strongly as artist or as a social activist? Or are these two fields inseparable?
I identify myself far more as an artist than as an activist. However, images that disclose their own agenda the way I like call for more accountable images, and more accountable images ask for more accountable policies. So in that way, you could say my images have some type of an activist effect. But I don’t see myself as an activist.
The Politic: It seems like you are aware of the political side effects of your work. Are you intentionally looking for these byproducts? Or are you going in more as an artist?
I’m going in as an artist. But I seek out situations in which the position that you develop as an artist matters. If my work develops a very similar position as that of an alternate reality—for instance, a white cube gallery—I would probably end up painting white canvases with white paint and hanging them in a white gallery. There is a reason why I usually do this in a politically charged situation. It helps me to better understand the media itself, and what those terms and conditions are.
The Politic: How have your interactions with your peer World Fellows and their works affected you, or vice versa?
They’re a great bunch. Many of the World Fellows people are purpose-driven. Certainly some people gather a lot of fame and capital. And certainly many of us will gather more fame and capital in the future. But I think every single person has a real commitment and sense of purpose. It’s really a productive group to be a part of. I don’t know how much more I can comment on it.
Almost none of the other people are involved in art the way I am. As I said in the beginning, being a World Fellow has been so beneficial because I need more knowledge about the other orders of reality and how the world is organized. It’s really great for me to work with practitioners, scholars, and students.
The Politic: Do you have a single most important piece of advice that you would like to share with Yale students?
Yes, I do. I’ve been very impressed by the sense of entitlement that people have and have been trained to have. I think that is a great thing, especially when it seems to have this anti-authoritarian streak to it. If you [are] an 18- or 20-year old, you’re able to politely challenge your professor. I truly applaud that and think it’s fantastic that an environment like Yale allows for such things.
However, I do wonder when this sense of entitlement turns into defying other people’s right to defining their own policies. You know, students, [both at] Yale and Yale graduates, are very influential. I think it’s very important to bear in mind that other people have ideas too. And they often aren’t trained with the same sense of entitlement. I think one needs to be really careful when one crosses the line, and this sense of entitlement becomes bullying. There’s a lot of bullying in this world. It would be great if at least some percentage of Yale graduates will recognize entitlement can turn into something ugly.
There is still no country in the world as powerful as the U.S. This is fine, but [we] should still know that about half of the world population does not have enough money to eat or go to school. I can’t escape the impression that somehow these two may be correlated. It would be good if at least some percentage of students used their sense of entitlement to press for more equality in the world and not just to further their own interests. That’s what I’m really getting at.