Pawel Althamer in conversation with Lorenzo Gigotti

4 December 2015

Photo by Rafał Żwirek


If the Draftsmen’s Congress is a continuous meeting of people who communicate with each other by drawing and sculpturing instead of words, it is also a place where conflict can arise and fears are confronted. Everyone is invited to join “the discussion” through paint, charcoal, collage, and other traditional materials and techniques and to react to different stimuli. On the occasion of the Draftsmen’s Congress in Turin, presented by Pinacoteca Agnelli in collaboration with Istituto Svizzero di Roma and curated by NERO, artist Pawel Althamer tells us that we can be polite or politically incorrect, frustrated or outraged, and incites us to “fight” others in a battle of images that is governed by an externalisation of emotions and real “physical” experience. More than anything else, the Congress is a “joy” that comes from letting go and being open to experience that has no limitations. The Draftsmen’s Congress in Turin will take place at Toolbox Coworking, a space devoted to co-working, obtained from two former industrial buildings behind Porta Nuova Train Station, a place where one can exchange job opportunities, competences and services, where self-employment is redesigned in a social way, focusing on relational skills and shared knowledge. Started in 2012 in Berlin in St. Elizabeth’s deconsecrated church, in Rome at the Istituto Svizzero di Roma and at ESC Atelier Autogestito, within the Solidarity Actions of 7. Berlin Biennale, the Draftsmen’s Congress has been organised in different cities around the world and in different venues, cultural associations, disused industrial estates, artist’s studios, museum institutions of ancient (National Art Museum of Ukraine, Kiev) and contemporary art (New Museum, NY, UCCA, Beijing)

Lorenzo Gigotti: This kind of project and the sorts of practices that we have experienced together on this occasion have so many dimensions that it is difficult to find a good place to start. Let’s take a linear approach and start with its origins. Where does the idea of the Draftsmen’s Congress come from and what was the original aim?

Pawel Althamer: It’s a joy. That’s the basic idea of the Draftsmen’s Congress as well as most of the activities that I try to experience. This joy comes from an unexplained experience and that’s my favourite part of it. It also comes from being sure that you want to experience. The title – in a linear or chronological sense – also gives us an indication of the roots of the Draftsmen’s Congress.

Congresso dei Disegnatori di Torino, 2015 © Pinacoteca Giovanni e Marella Agnelli, photo by Andrea Guermani


Congresso dei Disegnatori di Torino, 2015 © Pinacoteca Giovanni e Marella Agnelli, photo by Andrea Guermani


LG: Let’s start with childhood. You proposed taking those involved in the Draftsmen’s Congress back to a sort of childhood…

PA:  Yes in fact, the motto of the Draftsmen’s Congress is a sentence that we keep repeating: “it is never too late for a happy childhood.”

LG: Earlier today we spoke about this kind of repetition of the action, this kind of intensive way of doing something. The Draftsmen’s Congress is also about repetition. There is no real goal or aim but simply an intensive action that is repeated everyday. Is this related to childhood?

PA: It’s concentration, focusing or integration. I feel that I’m integrated when I’m talking to you and using my languages. I’m integrated because I feel that’s me, that it represents me. It’s a voice of nature but at the same time it’s a voice of freedom. It’s unpossessed…

LG: We also spoke about this different attitude to how we experience art. Whilst it can be extensive insofar as we produce a lot of art and we consume it as well, it can also involve a kind of repetition, that is, I think interesting. In your practice and not just for the Draftsmen’s Congress, this is the repetition of the same practice. Of course, you have changed the context.

PA: Maybe it’s not just repetition but a desire for continuity. Everyone more or less consciously wants to be present, to be alive, or to experience life. The desire is clear but the explanation for it remains hidden; so too do the names and words for it. Hence there’s the idea of digging. It’s like digging a mine, a common mine for a people looking for a treasure. There is also big promise they will find it.

LG: Do you think that drawing constitutes this kind of language?

PA: Yes, it’s practice. There’s no better recommendation, just go to practice. Do it like yoga or do it like a walk. Actually, there is no difference. There are more similarities than differences.

LG: Do you think that this kind of project could define a new function for the arts? Or are you not interested in this?

PA: Art will always follow this.

LG: You’ve worked with artist Artur Żmijewski on several occasions and he has his own view on these kinds of collective projects. He has also focused upon conflict and a the kind of tension that it can produce. What is your opinion on this?

PA: He’s counted in this technique, I believe. It’s his passion. For us, however, it’s a good sign that we are transparent when talking about this topic. This means that the Draftsmen’s Congress makes people at home here. They can feel with us, in one room. We are not separated.

LG: I think that the Draftsmen’s Congress somehow expresses the ambiguity of being free. You feel confident because you have access and possibilities but at the same time someone can invade your space. Or perhaps not invade but rather dialogue with your space and this is something that people are not always comfortable with.

PA: Yes, well we are not exactly well trained in conflict. We are creating a way of using fear and “cooking” conflict forever. For example, it’s like playing chess. Playing chess is a fantastic experience. It makes your mind precise and your memory very sharp, but sometimes you still need to find your head above or next to the game and to recognise that there are two guys playing chess and that there is a winner and a loser. We’re inspired by the system but it is not real and we are not making things real. That Draftsmen’s Congress is an opportunity to use a simple field, which can be shared and which can be extended because it is up to us. The Draftsmen’s Congress is not the proposal of democracy. In fact, I think that it is a proposal beyond and it is up to you. I don’t know if any system exists because it’s permanently a dialogue with yourself.  It involves you in solutions. And it makes you very important in that case. That’s also the message of the Draftsmen’s Congress – you are as important as all congressmen.  You can even feel it. It’s not a promise like “this is the space.” It is more like “this is the experience.” A space you can find in any place. You can find a space in the imagination. We initiate a good way of education only when people discover they can become much wider. Spaceless…

LG: You have brought the Draftsmen’s Congress to many different cultures, countries and contexts. Sometimes you worked in formal institutions like museums or on other occasions you have worked in totally informal situations – some public and others half public.What kind of effects did the Draftsmen’s Congress produce, for example, in a museum or in an informal situation?

PA: The effects are as diverse as the differing programs of, let’s say, the partners. But the Draftsmen’s Congress was initiated in a very basic situation, that is, I was communicating. You can be part of communication: you can be as open, as transparent as a field, as a space of communication, and because it’s unframed, it is spaceless. You are enjoying spacelessness. I think that a very good place to start from is yourself, from your spaceless self.

LG: So you think that the Draftsmen’s Congress changes your perception and makes you spaceless or less framed or unframed. Do you think that it also has an effect on the institutions? Does it, in a sense, unpack the museums or formal institutions?

PA: Of course, you know the butterfly effect. I have a message for the institutions but you cannot record it because it’s a gesture.

(In this moment Althamer takes a brush and paints the horizontal line of his eyes in black more than once, making sure that all the the skin is well covered with the black color.)

Photo by Rafał Żwirek


Photo by Rafał Żwirek


LG: Great answer Pawel. I will describe it in the text.

PA: I will make a red part of the sculpture now.

LG: You told me a little bit about this idea of the new development of the Draftsmen’s Congress and this notion of “sculpturing” together. What is the difference between drawing together and sculpturing together? That is, if there is any difference…

PA: Some people have told me that it is a higher level because it is a three dimensional world. Art immediately starts playing with everything if the sculpture is made in a public space with people. They discover that the game and the way they are playing with forms and material is real.  It is the experience that confirms I can really play with such a scale. I can understand and touch on many levels of perception and it is a sign that I am here.

LG: That you can use the material of the works…

PA: Yes, like a playground.

LG: And what about the potentiality of sculpturing.

PA: It’s even better than Olympic games, don’t you think? It’s open scale, it’s just infinity.

LG: Although I’m not surprised, I recognise something that is rare in artistic practice in your work. You are closed to the traditional tools of art like painting and sculpture. I’ve never seen you use a photo-camera or video.

PA:  In the right context, things happen. The point is that people start to create something where they are connected with materials or between them… A simple explanation is just above me. It’s like Wi-Fi. If you understand that you don’t have to paint, you have  a deep connection.. We call it inspiration because it’s your solution. That is, how much you want to be inspired. It’s up to you. I think that’s the true message of the temple. It’s really up to you. For example, you’re coming and you say, “oh fuck” and then things go wrong. You have the good temple and the bad temple.

LG: Your practice, or way of practising art for you, has many different layers. Sometimes it is a kind of public event in which you share and involve an audience and in other moments  it’s in a smaller context with your friends, some of which are unknown or unpublished. What is the difference between these layers? What happens when you have to not negotiate but rather deal with different collective spheres?

PA: There is a different impression, feeling or connection. It’s natural to express connection. I call it connection but it’s actually also a state of presence. It’s like during the observation: you observe and you are confronted with a spectrum afterwards. You can’t express it and you can never explain it. You will never possess the explanation of the process that you are following. That makes us really connected. Every philosopher gets it. Every physicist gets it. I am not ready to say I get it or explained it.

LG: But there is a difference when you are painting or sculpturing alone and when you share this experience with other people. You told me about your first residency in Berlin and how you felt like a prisoner in your studio. It seems like you tried to find solutions that brought you to the Draftsmen’s Congress as the latest stage of this course of being connected…

PA: The difference is the space. Your imagination or our perception of the space is like I’m here today but I’m not next to those guys. They’re just abstract. We are still governed by this perception and there is, let’s say, a hierarchy, panoramic or perspective of the relationship between us that is totally illusional. Getting to the point, when you are connected with yourself you can free your soul. It’s the first time that I am using this word soul. It’s one of the expressions that people fought for. You are full of soul. There is one soul. Let’s get together: dance, sing, draw. This is the expression of an amazing union that we can try to express like a feeling of identity. This feeling is permanent joy for really small kids. It’s like being really high.

LG: Of course, when you’re in this collective context and you draw with the other people, you’re more connected, but, at the same time, it’s also a space of differences.

Congresso dei Disegnatori di Torino, 2015 © Pinacoteca Giovanni e Marella Agnelli, photo by Andrea Guermani


Congresso dei Disegnatori di Torino, 2015 © Pinacoteca Giovanni e Marella Agnelli, photo by Andrea Guermani


PA: Yes, it’s like the difference between red, black and white. Using these differences, I express myself. It’s the same for everything. The circled conflicts are just tools to choose or decide what’s me. I’m white, I’m black, I’m red, I’m colourful.

LG: Recently you have been involved in a workshop with Arthur Żmijewski in Japan that was turning around the theme of conflict produced by different points of view or cultural behavior or prospective. You told me you understood the richness produced by conflicts.

How can conflicts be productive? When you say conflicts or every time that you speak about conflicts with someone, you are being honest.

PA:  Only by being honest with yourself, can you survive being honest with others. The pain is immediately manifested, I will be honest with you for who is not honest with themselves.

LG: You have been working with several people for a long time and it seems to me that there is  a real community that surrounds you. Is this a sort of “family”? Are you also experiencing art through the collaboration of these people? I remember when you saw the signs on the walls during the opening of the Congress, you said you were really thankful for all of these people because they were inspiring you.

PA: That’s the motivation: I’m inspired. They are showing me how to be as creative as I can feel. If I agree to participate in this common experience, even recognising my individuality from the others, I really accept it. I can really experience it. It is free knowledge. If you are learning languages, it’s not just to speak.

LG:  Is this the meaning of public space for you. That is, the space where you can share knowledge and “experience” with other people?

PA: It’s common space, it’s physicality, which creates a strong mood and transformation. In other cases, it’s just perfect. Common space is what we experience here. It is a place for dialogue. What if we start producing some fears. It’s a kind of theoretical game now. If I make you angry because I touch you then I know how to make war between us. I think the reason that I’m making war between us is because I’m afraid of you or perhaps I’m simply afraid of something. This is quite typical. It has happened that people are afraid of something and they can’t explain it or express it, because nobody has explained to them how to do it. There is no basic discussion. Now we are back to Żmijewski. He is using conflict because he has recognised that’s the basic problem in our world. That is, we don’t know how to play with conflict. That’s his mission: to experience how and to transform the aggressive into a creative answer or response.

Congresso dei Disegnatori di Torino, 2015 © Pinacoteca Giovanni e Marella Agnelli, photo by Andrea Guermani


Congresso dei Disegnatori di Torino, 2015 © Pinacoteca Giovanni e Marella Agnelli, photo by Andrea Guermani


LG: But fear is also preservation and part of our basic instinct.

PA: Of course, it’s a projection that you are afraid of. It’s a fantasy, but a very collective one. It’s a basic tool to manipulate people, especially if you think about the institutions.

LG: I like the fact the Draftsmen’s Congress could also be the space for these kinds of fears or possibilities. It’s a space where a lot of things can happen. You can not control it. This is fear, somehow. This produces fear. It creates these emotions.

PA: Yes, fears are producing reactions. A positive reaction is like attacking. It is one of the basic reactions to cover fear. We’ve missed one part of game, the process, that is, feeling fear and not accepting that fear is the motivation of the decisions because you transform the fear into the attack. It’s an automatic reaction. You feel fear. That’s my new practice. I’m afraid of something. Yet why am I afraid of expressing myself, thoughts, the negative in front of me. The good message, not only from the Draftsmen’s Congress is that it is not real what we are thinking and what we are feeling to motivate us to start this dialogue. It’s dangerous. But we’re free.  You can also be afraid because you are free. Someone needs to decide what you are and what you want to do. But you are also free to choose someone to be your guide.

LG: Yes, I also like this notion of being unsafe. Compared to other projects, I have this feeling that is very productive and it’s also connected with fear. I am afraid of something. Yet it is also a potentiality.

PA: Acting with pleasure but in the tradition of painting you would be unhappy because I demolished his vision. The final vision. We can change the value of something by possessing it. From possession to obsession.

LG: I mean nowadays it seems that most people are focused upon common space and goods. It seems to be a different way of perceiving goods and values. Do you honestly feel that there aren’t many possibilities? Or, that we’ve become obsessed by possession hence making it difficult to find other spaces for sharing?

PA: The good practical topic is common space here and now. The healthy idea is the temple. The revival  of the temple, but without competition. Yet even if where there’s competition, there’s the idea of playing: changing rules, exchanging opinions, drawings, thoughts/tools. I like physical language. That’s my challenge. I like this physicality. It makes me experience and respect the physical expressions of the other people.

LG: But what is physical for you? Is it touching someone or being in a common space?

PA: Of having bodies, let’s say. I call using our bodies physical. There are many levels on which we communicate but the part we remember the most is experience. If you decide it is not important, it is like a like a dream, you don’t remember and you are not experiencing yourself. It’s as if you don’t exist…

LG: So you think that the Draftsmen’s Congress is a big metaphor for a new way of sharing spaces, common goods, knowledge and languages?

PA: Sure, you get the message.

Congresso dei Disegnatori di Torino, 2015 © Pinacoteca Giovanni e Marella Agnelli, photo by Andrea Guermani


Edited by Vashti Ali