Breaking the rules and crossing borders is inherent to Joost Conijn’s work. He’s built a gate in the Sahara desert, an airplane with which he crossed Central-Africa, and more recently, he’s been living in refugee camps and recording their daily lives (without the official permission). But daring, denouncing, and spreading a truthful and sincere point of view is basic to us all, especially in the post-truth era where facts seem to have no importance whatsoever. Today, we talk with the artist and filmmaker about taking risks and how are our opinions shaped.
Travelling and exploring are core to your artistic practice. What travel or country made you decide you wanted to keep exploring realities different from yours?
Travelling is in my nature, I have always felt the appeal of faraway places. To step into another world, be a stranger and be continually amazed. Those experiences allow me to look at things in a new way, over and over again.
You’re currently presenting Good Evening to the People Living in the Camp at Museum Boijmans in Rotterdam. It’s about refugees, but your approach doesn’t focus on tales of hardship but on their everyday lives in camps. How different is your story from the others we’re more used to listen and see? Why did you decide to approach it the way you’ve done?
To me, it was important to find out how do I relate to the issue of the refugees. I didn’t know how to relate to it by reading newspapers and watching television. I took my car and drove to Calais, a refugee camp in France, and later to Greece, to meet the travellers myself. I found out the reality I was confronted with in the camps was very different from what I had seen in the media. It made me realize I could make a film to open up another perspective.
Journalism is mostly focussing on actions that are exceptional, when something is going wrong. It is hard to identify with such situations or people who are in it. For this reason, I wanted to film their daily lives. I wanted to come closer by not showing the unnatural situations of interviews given, but to see the people cooking their food, playing football or fishing.
What was the most shocking thing you saw/experienced in the camp?
It was shocking all over but I was not too much interested in shocking facts – they create a big gap between them and us. I was interested in showing life, people, what they are doing, and that they are maybe not so different from us.
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In what ways has the experience of being in the camps, recording them, and editing a film afterwards changed you as a person, if any? What’s the most important thing you take with you from the whole process of Good Evening to the People Living in the Camp?
Actually, it changed me a lot. It is not often that I have to redefine myself and change the way I look at things that much. I found out that an opinion is not that interesting; actually, I found that what’s interesting is a dynamic opinion more than a fixed point of view. So for me, the film is not only about refugees but also about how you look at things, how your opinion is shaped.
You recorded in camps where it is forbidden to do so. How important is taking risks to produce art and to tell stories? How far were you willing to go to capture the images we can now see in the video?
While doing my work, I’m kind of fearless because it has to be realised. It just has to be done, so any rule there is I will break it. While being in the middle of a project, it’s normal for me to create my own rules because, actually, realising something that has not yet been done is about breaking the rules and crossing borders – I also have to cross my own to create a new work.
How important is truth in art, or at least, in your artworks? Was breaking the rules and exposing yourself a way to deepen into a reality we can’t see at first sight?
I felt the need to offer or give my truth or reality, which was missing in the field of other realities. There was a gate with soldiers and a big fence, so to me, it was important to get in and find out what was going on inside. And there was so much to tell about in the camps that’s hidden to the world…
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This is just another of your many accomplishments: exhibitions at multiple museums, art galleries, and significant art events such as documenta. Maybe it’s difficult, but could you please highlight the three most remarkable moments of your career so far?
The highlights are in the making of the works themselves: building a gate in the Sahara desert, travelling with an airplane I built myself over Central-Africa, and recently staying with and filming the refugees. It was so special to meet all these people and to hear their stories. Also, it was great to build up the exhibition in Rotterdam and present the work to the public.
You’ve started the year pretty strong. Any other projects we should be looking forward to in the next months?
I’m not talking about on-going projects, I’m sorry. I will when they are there!
Good Evening to the People Living in the Camp by Joost Conijn is on view until May 7 at Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Museumpark 18-20, Rotterdam.
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