Interview with David Hilmer Rex by Scott William Raby at Artist Placement
Transcription of Interview of David Hilmer Rex of Diakron with Scott William Raby as Presented at ARGOS on June 3, 2019. Edited from original interview on 13/5/2019
Scott William Raby: I’m curious if you could start by describing Diakron and its origins – what are its aims, when did it begin, and who was involved?
David Hilmer Rex: Diakron was started in 2014 by myself, Aslak Aamot Kjærulff – who is a sociologist and action researcher, Bjarke Hvass Kure, and Amitai Romm – who are both artists and curators, like myself. We started Diakron because we (coming from different fields) didn’t see a direct transport from our educational training into some kind of existing job position or context. Diakron was really an occasion to try to think through how might we work in new ways around emerging systemic crises – climate change, resource depletion, and these macro-scale crises that very few people probably know how to actually engage with, but that a lot of people have a sense that they will somehow be working on in the coming 10, 15, or 20 years. In that sense Diakron was really an attempt to prepare for a situation where we would be finding ourselves closer somehow to these emerging systemic crises, that we couldn’t get if we were working in the default setting of the art field, or policy development, or consulting, or the kind of specialized fields of practice we had access to. That was kind of the genesis of it and then we just started talking about what that might look like and explore organizational forms that might allow us to actually have some kind of traction in the problems we’re interested in.
SWR: Can you describe the difference, because I think there can be some confusion, between Primer and Diakron – how the dynamics between each inform each other?
DHR: Diakron is the collective or research studio and Primer is a project by Diakron. I think what makes for the confusion is that all the members of Diakron and Primer overlap one-to-one, and in that sense there isn’t much of a difference between the human resources, but also for our own purposes and given that we do other projects, it’s important to differentiate the different projects from each other in order to make them distinct from each other, and to not do everything at once. We also have other projects than Primer, but it is taking up a majority of our time at the moment.
SWR: Primer is essentially a project that is located within the Aquaporin company, correct?
DHR: Yes, but I would say in relation to Aquaporin because the site in Kongens Lyngby is not the only site at the moment - we’re also actually looking towards working in Singapore and the U.S. also. Besides that, Primer is very much modeled on following and developing alongside an emerging technology company not only in terms of the physical site, but also in terms of the organization as such, so the site can also be conversations around public private partnerships in India, for example… the physical site is important, but there are many different kinds of sites that occupy our conversations.
SWR: It’s really interesting, and somewhat exceptional to have a company like Aquaporin supporting the Primer project and the activities of Diakron – can you speak a bit more about how this relationship was formed?
DHR: Peter, the CEO, somehow had an inkling that he wanted to have art in the headquarters, because it looks like a post-industrial kunsthalle, so there’s the spatial setting that really asks for artistic practice in some way, but actually he has a deeper, historical, more complex reason behind what he wants to do. The way he says it is that in pre-modern times art and technology weren’t so separate and were simply parts of the same practice. He has a deep historical interest in disciplinary divisions and somehow figuring out how we can reconfigure (them), and that is fortunate because these are some of founding ideas behind Diakron and the conversations we’ve had is that there is a need to think through the relationships between specialized fields in a new way. It’s a rare, but very fortunate, similar outlook we have with Peter, the CEO.
SWR: It seems that it’s a unique situation in that Peter has a certain interest in thinking about how an artistic practice can interface with a dynamic technology company in a generative way on both sides – Do you think that this “very unique situation” has difficulties in being reproduced elsewhere? Or, maybe if you are going to engage in these other projects, or branches of research in Singapore and the U.S. that that is obviously through the Aquaporin company because the CEO has this interest?… I guess my question is framed around thinking of the interest of the people in positions of power, and if you can comment upon how contingent the ability to have the project in this company is to the fact that there’s one guy with power who is interested in it….
DHR: In that sense of course, he is really important. Our collaboration wouldn’t exist without him and his vision and openness. I think easily you could reproduce a project like Primer somewhere else, but you would need the same kind of openness, and non-instrumental expectation of basically working through a genuine experimental model, where you try stuff out, and then learn from that, and really set aside a lot of assumptions you have about how something works and what the outcomes of something like this could be. (There’s) another baseline, I guess (an) almost ontological kind of shared ground that we have. As an artist working through experimentation and open-ended processes is very much an interest to me, and seeing how methodologies slowly emerge out of that – (and Peter) being a scientist, he knows, or he’s familiar with these kind of methodologies and expecting that outcomes may appear within a month, or a year, or 5 years, 10 years, 20 years, (even) 50 years – that projects can have complex spectrum of cycles nestled within them. I guess you could call this complexity theory, or an interest in dynamic systems, and emergence, and how you navigate, plan, and work with such processes. Then of course, Aquaporin employs what’s called “an open innovation model”, which some people have critiqued for simply being a new name for something that has been happening at all times, and the basic fact that in order for say a company or institution to work, they need to be open and have really good feedback mechanisms and relationships with the external world. In some sense, what we are doing is probably unique, but at other companies you might have a kind of open connection with an external world, but taken up by other actors - consulting companies, or design research studios, or whatever… I certainly don’t see what we are doing as unique in the sense that no one else is trying to do that… I think a lot of people are trying to think through how to create increasingly open and diverse and collective models, so that’s kind of the broader paradigm as I see it within.
SWR: This is actually interesting if you think of an art historical context towards similar projects in which artists and companies comingle and cooperate, namely, or one of the more obvious examples that come to mind is the Artist’s Placement Group, and so, its interesting to think of the power dynamics, or the differing power dynamics, in the sense that, you, or an interesting research outfit (Diakron) was sought to be brought into the company, whereas APG was an active model of seeking a way in which artists could interface within companies. Am I off in reading it that way or does that seem like how it happened?… Is it a fair assessment to say that there is a different power relationship between how Diakron was formed then how, for example, the APG project was formed, in the sense that in APG there was a mission to seek relationships between existing companies and corporations and government institutions in which artists could interface with, whereas you were invited to be a part of Aquaporin – do you think this is a different power relationship? Or Maybe I’m just reading it in an oversimplified manner…
DHR: No, I just think that even within APG projects, probably all of the placements had different qualities and dynamics to them. I mean what is important about these kind of projects is that personal/professional relationships are incredibly important, and specific people can really hinder or really make space for these collaborations in new ways, so exactly who took the initiative and why and when and from which side, I don’t know if it is that important, but more just a question of who are the actual people and what are their underlying reasons for wanting to work in this way and somehow bring art closer to industry and science and technology and vice versa. Then of course, another important thing is – I don’t know too much about the industry placements the Artist Placement Group did, but what’s interesting about our context is of course that Aquaporin is very much, even though they have existed for 15 years now, is quite a young company and it is very much in development. When we came in there were around 50 employees and now, they’re nearing 100. Entering the situation at that stage for us has been important, because there are many kinds of cultural and (other) things about the company that are still developing. So, it is a different kind of thing to relate to rather than a very super, hard defined company that has a settled culture. For me, what you’re basically asking is what the interesting question is - how can you identify, and cultivate, a network of people within industry and government who have an interest in this. I think these kind of emerging technologies that we don’t have a language for, or language hasn’t really arrived in a cultural sense is a super interesting context. I think a lot of the people who are developing those technologies at the moment come from less of a hardcore management background and more of a scientific background, so if you can find those people, I think there is a lot of potential for starting conversations about new ways of working with them.
SWR: That’s a good segway into my next question, because I was going to ask then – maybe if you could talk about some of the specific projects or research interests Diakron does, or through Primer at Aquaporin – just to give some specifics about some of the broader principles you’ve been articulating.
DHR: We work through (what we talked about) as a differentiated model rather than having one model or format for working with Aquaporin – we try to have a set of formats. We do everything from a more classical, thematic, large scale exhibitions surveying a theme we’re interested in. Then, either alongside that, or nested in that, we have ongoing, long-term collaborations with artists who we develop a dialog with in how they might want to develop something in some kind of proxy or relation to the context and that process is really about facilitation, dialogue, and mediation and establishing through dialogue the context in which the artist relates – so that is two main formats. One new format that I also describe in the recent article is we’ve begun to discuss with them how to write Primer into what’s called “public-private partnerships” which is a generic term for any kind of constellation between private/public actors who gather around a shared mission and often have, at least in Aquaporin’s case, its about testing and developing a new technology on a smaller scale in order to prepare it for larger scale integration. That’s a really interesting thing because there we see the edge of what they want to do, but are maybe not capable of right now, so they’re really in that space articulating some of the edges of the field they’re operating in. Then, really they are inviting us in to provide our perspective in terms of that, which is very much, you could say… while they’re extremely versatile in terms of technical, and technological aspects of these projects the socio-cultural aspects of them is where there is a lot of space for us to enter the conversation. We’ve only sent out one application so far, but just that one and the conversations we went through in that case was really a super interesting new avenue for working with them because it builds on basically relational work we’ve been doing since late 2016 where we’ve been simply spending a lot of time getting to know the concrete people in the company in order for something like this to emerge where we can transition from more kind of loose conversations about art, technology, and science and the relationships between them into a highly concrete conversation about the prospect of reusing water in a Danish context. I guess for me that is one of the points and the beautiful things of having this differentiated model because you can really move between more abstract conversations about technology and art and the relationships between them to actually looking at a highly concrete process by which a new technology is proposed, imagined, developed, and brought to some kind of system integration in, say a Danish context, in this case. That’s one of the reasons we try to have different formats because they really strengthen each other and its also a consequence of thinking through what a way of working that is somehow true to what I talked about before, but the chaotic nature of dynamic processes where you try and work with “the unforeseen or unexpected outcomes” of these kind of projects. Of course we have a set of ideas about what we do with the outcomes of it, but it is important for me to be very open all the time in terms of expecting weird, unforeseen things to come out of this and then when they do appear and show themselves (to) be capable of catching them and actually working through them. This public private partnership kind of came out of nowhere and just happened one week, and we just went for it, and worked with it, and now it might emerge into a whole new kind of avenue of our work.
SWR: One interesting thing about the Public Private Partnership also, is that in terms of sustainability of artist practice from an economic perspective, this also allows you, or that you’ve taken the step now of, through, let’s just call it a thread of research and interaction – to be incorporated into the company’s funding to different state, and larger private grants in which the company then sustains its bottom line, so this is sort of interesting as well in the sense that it allows for a different funding model for artists within the company to essentially be salaried workers or researchers, with scientists (who are) working on different water molecule technologies – is that correct?
DHR: Yes, for sure. … The model you know in the Danish context is basically a collection-based model where companies by works of art, and that’s fine, but we’ve tried to focus on a model that prioritizes human resources, so besides these public private partnerships we also are applying for PhD and Post-Doc positions co-funded by Aquaporin. We actually just a week ago had a Post-Doc that went through to Aslak, but he was then weirdly disqualified from getting the position because he had too much experience in the private sector, but it was just a case in explaining to a highly technical fund the value of what we do and try to build. Of course there is a whole side of this project that has to do with the economic relationships between us and Aquaporin and not only that, but what other new models can be built together … – it’s a conversation we have on a very candid basis because they know our economy at the moment is getting better, but it is certainly not up to speed in terms of the resources investing in the project, so this is something we’re developing but its not the main and front purpose of what we do but it’s a thing that needs to be considered of course.
SWR: I was curious because a lot of my research is in the realm of thinking about the relationships between art and law, art and legality, contractual relations, and this is another question (on) the Diakron model - how is it contractually negotiated? How is your mandate to be there – how is (it) codified or made so that the agreement is clear?
DHR: Well, through ongoing dialogue with Peter, but we have nothing written down essentially. Of course, when you work towards either a public/private partnership, or co-funding of Post Doc or PhD applications within those formats there are quite clear legal parameters in terms (that) they are governed by legal parameters, whereas other projects we’re doing are not. (In relation to) the overall kind of relationship we do have, there are no contracts or legal items written down, so it is more based on long-term trust-based relationships. We have had visitors who said “What are you doing? You need a contract” and I think we need that for certain kinds of collaborations and for others, its fine to have a more informal relationship. It’s very much about trust, and in that sense I trust, by now I truly trust Peter in the collaboration we have. Of course, that is super important in terms of having this relationship. As we get closer to each other, and become more intimate through close-knit collaboration, in those cases of course its good to have written, legal implications of the kinds of collaborations, but then they’re tied to actually wanting to actually do something together rather than trying to solidify and draw boundaries around a relationship – I’m sure you could do that, we just haven’t done it because we trust each other.
SWR: It seems as though, the way you’ve described Diakron is that it is a unique and special set of circumstances in which it exists, although these types of projects or the way in which an artistic practice or platform could engage with – let’s just say something like the formalized manifestations of capital in terms of a company, or a corporation, and so on – do you think that this could be a sort of sustainable countermodel of artistic production if we think about the broader framework and issues that artists face in terms of being able to reproduce their artistic production in the context of hegemonic neoliberal position – facing precarity, gentrification, and different geo-political circumstances in terms of urbanization processes, and marketization, etc. – do you think that Diakron presents a more sustainable way of thinking about how to reproduce one’s artistic practice or how a platform can engage in ways of reproducing itself differently?
DHR: We are trying to build out new ways of working, and new ways of funding what we do which is not only coming from an artistic background, but also from other specialized fields. The way I think about it is that the more general task of the field of art is what I would call diversification – because we have a situation where the field mainly operates in societies in more or less the same ways – production of works of art, circulation of them, sales, all that stuff we know, and that’s fine, but I think there’s a vast space beyond that in terms of developing new ways of working and new ways of funding, not only artistic practices, but other practices also who have an interest in working around emerging systemic crises were facing. For me, its not about say “saving art” or reproducing what is also a very prioritized position within a field, but also about challenging the field to transform itself, take on new responsibilities, consider what it is actually capable of, and deploying those skills and competencies in new ways, in new settings where it will need to transform and take on new shapes, and new forms than simply reproducing existing cultural models and values.
SWR: How as an artistic platform does Primer engage outside of the Aquaporin context with audiences, publics, and other institutions?
DHR: We have an extended network internationally of similar projects who are interested in deploying artistic competencies in new ways often having this focus on technology development so we are in constant dialog with them and constantly trying to find institutions in Denmark that are interested in having these kinds of conversations. Nothing concrete in terms of collaboration has come out of that, but that is slowly under development. Then, in October 2019 we’re participating in an exhibition at Moderna Museet curated by Lars Bang Larsen on questions around art and technology, so that’s kind of the first instance of sort of working in a more traditional artistic setting and figuring out if that is of any use to us. Then we run a department at the Dutch Art Institute where we teach. Again, it’s a number of quite informal relationships. In that way, the setting to Aquaporin, and the relationship to them is taking up the majority of our activities for sure.
SWR: You (said) something interesting in the article you co-wrote with Aslak where you started out with this interesting quote (by) Benjamin Bratton where he said that he’s more interested in non-art having art-like effects than art in general not having certain effects. Taking that in context, how does working at Diakron change how you think about the possibilities of artistic practice and what it can do?
DHR: Thinking through a diversification of the field of art entails thinking through how art can and do other things than the set of established normative ways in which it has effects in societies – some of the work that is presented in the article is thinking around questions of impact and effect in a more open-ended manner – One point being that often even though I’m part of Diakron and I work with Primer, the majority of the outcomes of that project is probably something I don’t know of, or don’t have control over or am not capable of getting access to, so in that work we’re trying to map out all the different kinds of effects you could expect from coming out of a project like this. Its more about preparing your mental models for thinking through a wider spectrum of effects, which to me makes sense because I think aesthetic and cultural and artistic ways of working allows for, or does operate through, incredibly complex kind of asynchronic models of effects where you put something out into the world and the way in which it transports itself and moves around is highly complex and can effect people in unforeseen ways one never had expected of doing.
SWR: You also describe in the article the importance of being in the space with the workers at Aquaporin and how this relationship, or these interactions are important to understand how to re-engineer relationships, representations, signifiers, etc. through this process - can you describe further how these daily exchanges with the workforce help Diakron realize different aims?
DHR: …I think I talked about it a bit before, but… If you wanted to be able to establish more proximate relationships in these different fields that a person within Aquaporin (and who they bring into the space) to work together towards something, then that is simply much easier if you know the specific people, their ideas, what they are good at, what they’re less good at, and basically understanding the worlds they’re living in. I think what we are trying to do in this project is collapse different worlds onto each other and one super important parameter in that is basically time… and being able to spend a lot of time together with these people simply allows for more complex relationships to be crafted across them. … I think this has been the case with APG, and not only APG but also Experiments with Art and Technology in the U.S. back in the 60’s – that what happens is a lot of cultural and social misunderstandings basically block the possibilities of new ways of working together. So, in the context of Aquaporin, for example, I’ve been in conversation with some people who I thought of as the most prejudiced kind of people in terms of why we are there, but then a week later finding myself in a meeting with them and they’re some of the most open people in terms of what we can talk together about and do together, simply because a shift in context and a way of working and a purpose allows for a new kind of conversation to emerge. I guess it is very much like digging beneath these cultural blockages and misunderstandings.
SWR: So obviously in the context of Diakron we think about other art historical models that existed previously from an associational perspective – APG and Experiments in Art and Technology – and see these as potential influences or models in which Diakron is similar to, but what would be some influences for Diakron outside of this spectrum?
DHR: In our hybrid organizations project and in general, we spend a lot of time looking at historical and new ways of working. We look at consulting companies, research studios, individual practitioners, and (as I describe in the article) we spend a lot of time gathering examples of them and surveying how people are working, why, (and) with what methods in able to basically steal and copy parts of their practices.
I guess the more obvious examples would be organizations operating in a transdisciplinary field or a field where it is unclear what kind of specialized fields feed into it, so be it thinktanks, consulting companies, research studios, research departments at universities, these kind of extra disciplinary situations where people articulating new missions and new ways of working with us is very important. There are many examples of people doing this in very different ways.
SWR: What visions for the Diakron project are there going forward?
DHR: I would probably answer this one way, and another member would answer this another way, but for me, this question of a differentiated model is incredibly important. If we can be capable of having super well-researched thematic projects in an exhibition form alongside long-term, open-ended collaborations with artists, alongside very proximate relationships with Aquaporin where we are discussing a concrete technology being developed in a concrete place, in say India, Singapore, or wherever, alongside me writing my PhD and producing of quality in that context – if we are capable of achieving a high-level of quality across these different formats and contexts that is a success criteria. In a more overarching sense, this is also something we’re working on – I think it is important not to have only these singular projects, and spend all our time on that, but also building the larger network in which these kind of collaborations make sense and they can share methodologies, and ideas, and ways of working because if you want an actual diversification of the field of art to actually take place, you need to operate at the overarching macro-scale, organizational level – if you don’t do that these projects will simply dissipate with us when we stop working on them. There’s a question like this with Primer – how do you work with it in a way where it becomes capable of other people doing the same or similar thing in a different context. I certainly feel some kind of responsibility in terms of (which that article is a part of) in communicating and articulating this project as we go along to share it and make it replicable for other people.