Sebastian Bieniek describes himself as an artist who plays with the roles of the insider and the outsider in the art world. And that is certainly not a weakness: it’s the weapon that turns him into the individual who is aware of today’s morbid power plays. He just discovered Pharrell Williams. He does not believe in democracy. He compares art to semen. He gives away a useful glossary of just three keywords for willing art insiders. We wanted to know more about him after his collaboration with Jacquemus for Paris Fashion Week, and even if he defines himself as an uncomfortable person, his words on art, politics, galleries, museums and fashion are such a delightful and bold statement…
Your work has been described as ironic, sarcastic, and I would also highlight critical. Is that an innate characteristic of your personality that becomes expressed in your work? Or do you force your work to become such a kind of statement?
Actually and unfortunately it's my personality – the way I see the world. So now you know that I’m also very uncomfortable as a person (laughs).
Our current societies, both in a local and global scale, are going through turbulent times. Probably as all times in history. Is your irony and sarcasm a way to get deeper into those turbulences and explore them, or a way for you to escape from them?
Of course I try to get deeper and deeper. I’m scratching all the time at the surface, and hope to find a way to get the view at the ‘heart of the mechanism’. I don’t want to just illustrate these turbulences. I want to know why they come, where they come from, how they work and how they can be changed. So I try and try. I try everything to make them move or change a little.
Performance art has been a big part of your career. I have read about your piece Bird shit on 4 square metres gold, the bank robbery performance in 1998 and the burqa scene in the Art Forum in Berlin in 2009. Can you explain a little bit about those works?
Well, most of these works are fifty percent plan and fifty percent improvisation. I mean, first I always have a picture in my mind, but then I notice that it’s impossible to make. Then I get angry for a few minutes and after that I say: “No, you don’t get me away until I get what I want.” And this moment, which is a little bit the end of the previous plan I had, is very often a more interesting artwork than the picture I wanted. 
For example in 2013 I made the performance Bird shit on 4 square meters Gold in front of the Deutsche Bank Kunsthalle. The plan I first had was to go in and just to hang the painting, but then I was too lazy to wait, and it would be too boring for me, so I just went in front of the entrance and started to scream to the people: “Please go home, I already won the prize with this shit in my hands.” Or when I made the Burqa performance, the first plan was to go inside (we had an invitation for it), but then the security guards said: “You can’t come in,” so we went away. We found some people from the TV who took us inside and the following interaction with the security people was maybe the more interesting part of the performance, even more than what would have happened if they would’ve just let us through.
You have previously mentioned that in places like the Art Forum in Berlin it is “all about power and not about art.” Do you think that statement applies to the art world in general today?
Yes, of course. But it’s not a description of nowadays. I think it has always been like this. The one who has the power has the truth and can tell everything. Power is always the best and the most valued argument. In fact I believe that there are no other arguments than those of the power. But fortunately power is a very huge machine. It always needs a certain time to move its ass, especially when it’s confronted with something new. For example, when you call the police and say something that is not on their list, or something they do not understand, then they can’t do anything. I mean you can’t break the law when you do something that is not described in the ‘book of law’. This is my instrument, or an instrument I very often use in a positive way: to confront power with something it can not understand, because it’s the only way to move the power. You cannot have a confrontation with the power. Because it always works the same way: the stronger one wins. When you are the weaker one, it’s senseless. But when you come with something new, you are invisible for the machine, so you can do everything. But you don’t have a lot of time, because after a certain time they will know what you play. At that moment you have to run.
The art market and the potential profit of any work seem to be the leading force of projects today. How would you describe the role of museums and galleries in such a situation?
You mean the private galleries and the state owned museums? Well, I think that private galleries are between the artists and the state museums. When you want to be successful as a private gallery you have to make money. Nothing else. I mean, at the end of every exhibition or art fair, there is only one question left: “How much did you sell?” So I think galleries only care about profit. And the state owned museums are for the career of their directors. You know, it’s like politicians in Germany. After a certain time in politics, most of them leave and get a very lucrative manager position in one of the huge corporations. I think it’s the same with museum directors. They look with one eye always for a better position and all they do is to make their way to it a little shorter.
What is your approach to a gallery or museum setting as an exhibitional space?
It’s what it is. You can’t change it but you can handle it. I’m not like: “I need this wall” or “this is a good wall” and this a “bad wall.” Usually I don’t discuss this for longer that five minutes.
During the last exhibition I made in Berlin, the curator told me: “It was the fastest-hung exhibition I ever made.” I just got there and said: “this there, this there, there, there, there” and everything was on the wall after twenty minutes. When somebody starts to argue with me about it, I say: “You want to hang it yourself? Ok, we’ll see each other on the opening, please reserve a few gin-tonics for me” and then I go.
I have recently had a discussion about how a fashion museum founded by a fashion house could be considered as a mere marketing strategy. I then thought about how the private interests of museums also have an underlying massive importance in museum production. What is your opinion about it?
Well, it's doublefaced. On the one side I agree with you, on the other you see that, through the history of art, art is stronger and simply lasts more than all the fashion houses together. So when the fashion house will already be forgotten, possibly everybody will still know the art which was exhibited there. Of course, it depends on the art they show, but you know Michelangelo, Raffael and da Vinci also worked for the church and no one knows the name of the person they worked for but still everybody knows their work.
It’s also connected to the question you asked me about galleries and museums. The galleries, museums can be corrupt, bad, ugly, unfair, lying, untrue, but art always finds its way into the immortality. That is, I think, very special about art. It’s like a semen, it does not matter how dark the time and circumstances are, it will find its place: if not through this, then through another way.
What is the relevance of consumption in art?
I don’t think that there is any, in the traditional meaning of the term consumption – related to use. Because art has no (and should not have) use. Art is the only useless consumption if you want so. It’s more like a play. It’s a kind of chess with secret rules. Because when you come from the outside and ask for the rules to, for example, a gallerist, he would tell you everything, but not the real rules. Possibly he will tell you: “There are no rules.” But of course there are.
For example, one of the rules is that most of the known artists come from more or less rich families. Why is that? Well, it’s a paradox, but people prefer artists who say “all people should be the same,” instead of artist who do it. You know, like when you visit a doctor and say: “I have stomach pain” and the doctor says “You should not have stomach pain” instead of fixing it. It’s a kind of conservatism. People with money want to say “everything should change” but in reality they do everything to make change impossible. And in order to be a successful artist you have to think like rich people think, because in a way you want to be one of them, right? Sou you have to tell all this shit about democracy, liberty, freedom, equality, tolerance, but never, never, never do it! It’s like the policy in ancient Rome. Saying this on the one side, and doing opposite.
So is it valid to say that art is democratic nowadays?
I don’t believe in democracy. What is democracy? You really believe that the policy in democratic countries is making what the people in democratic countries want? No, of course not. So what is democracy? If you ask me, I think that the latest election in Turkey is very representative for what we call democracy. It means that the president (Erduan) invents a kind of danger, and people vote for him because they are impressed by the danger that he invented. When you look at the U.S., you see the same, a Donald Trump who invented the danger of Chinese and who is all the time just saying: “Chinese, Chinese, Chinese…” So, I mean, do you mean this kind of democracy? Because I doubt that any other exist.
And coming back to art, in the same way like Donald Trump invents the danger of Chinese, artists invent the importance of colours, forms, light, naked women, paintings, sculptures, installation. So when the story is good and when the personality is interesting, it works. If not, it does not work.
I see a strong bond between fashion and art, since there seems to be a lack of critical independent journalism related to both fields. Is that maybe the reason why honest criticism is more effective (and probably only possible) from within, as happens with your work?
Well, no. I think criticism is impossible from within. When you are within you have to follow the rules that are ruling in within, otherwise you can’t stay in within. Fortunately I’m not within so I can make a real criticism. I’m more dancing around. Sometimes I’m jumping inside, sometimes I hide myself and pretend to be within. Well, I’m playing, and I’m changing –I have to change– the rules of my game very often. So I’m in a way an invention of myself. But I always have to move, to change, otherwise I’ll become a part of within and then I loose my freedom.
Then I have to say what you have to say when you are within. It’s a kind of codec. Have you ever noticed that people in the art world always use the same words? But what is the most interesting is that they have two kinds of language: one they use inside and another one they use for the outside. For the outside they have a lot of foreign words. In the inside I can promise you, you just need to know three words: “cocaine, bitches and money.” Sorry, but it’s true.
Social media is a strong way to connect to the audience, and you seem to be engaged in this direct relationship. What is your opinion about it?
Well, I think that social media is the first real revolution in art history! It’s the first time in the history of art that an artist can reach his audience without anybody in between. Without the church, without a gallerist, without a museum. It’s a real revolution. And it’s great, because it’s the very first time that art can be free. But let’s see how long it will last, because politics make more and more to control the information going through the internet. Now it’s still new, but as I mentioned before, the machine of power is very slow, and it allows you to be free as long as it does not understand what you are doing. But that doesn’t last for ever. So I can imagine that privacy and availability in the internet can change in a negative way in the future.
In relation to social media, I had seen your "Doublefaced" photographic series on Tumblr before the collaboration with Jacquemus. When I first saw images from the show, I thought it was a case of plagiarism. I was relieved to know it was actually a collaboration. How did it come up? How did you meet Jacquemus?
Well, he wrote me an e-mail so it was nice from his side, because for example in the Marylin Monroe video of Pharell Williams they plagiarised my photo Doublefaced No. 4, which is not nice. But, you know, when I made the Doublefaces for Jacquemus, people on the internet started to call my work “Jacquemus' work,” so I thought this was not nice again, because it was my work and not his.
But as I wrote, people are very simple. The more power you have, or the bigger or better known you are, the more you and also people believe that all you have or use is yours. But it’s actually opposite. Usually rich people just use or take the property of poor people, but because poor people have no voice: nobody can hear them saying “it’s mine.” It’s similar in the show business, and also in art. When you are small, weak and have no voice or power, you cannot defend what you created. Then everybody who is bigger and more powerful can come and take your work away. And you can’t do anything against it. So in this regard it’s very useful to have a big audience in social media, because it’s the audience who starts to fight for your right first. When my work was used for the Pharrell Williams video, I first noticed that people were writing to me every day like: “Have you seen the new Pharrell Williams video? He stole your work!” During the first days I just thought: “Who the fuck is Pharrell Willams?” and just deleted those e-mails. Nowadays –it’s really funny– when somebody, doesn't matter where in the world, uses Doublefaced, I have immediately a dozen of emails in my Facebook account. So in a way my fans care more for my work than me. And they are everywhere. So it’s nice.
Was doing a collaboration within the fashion world something that you had been pursuing, or did it just happen for some other reason?
No, I even didn’t want to do it, but then I thought: “well, but if I say no, may be he’ll do it anyway.” So it’s better to do it.
What dimension do you think this collaboration added to your work?
I’m not really sure. Since that, my work was shown in the biggest magazines like Vogue, New York Times, Harper’s Bazaar... But it’s not that I feel like I have a better connection to the fashion world.
For me nothing changed, except for the fact that my name is in a way flickering in this scene. But it’s not that big, and not that much, so it can go off and disappear any moment. As long there is no continuation, I can not really say that it works. So I don’t know if it was more than a one night stand.
Would you ever consider doing another collaboration or project within the fashion world?
Well, I can imagine a lot. Photographs, fashion shows, even an own collection. Why not? Last month an Italian company asked me to create a t-shirt. Now this t-shirt got some prizes. Last week I was asked by an Austrian company to create another shirt. Well, I’ll do and it’ll grow. Let’s see how it’ll look when it’s grown up. But everything is possible. When you work with people, the chemistry has to work. People have to be nice, otherwise the work is not nice.
What memorable response have you had to your work?
That it’s not finished. When I think of my work, I first think: “Damn, I have to do this and this and this and this, and I have no time and it’s not finished.” So I have a feeling similar to panic when I think of my art. I’m in panic because I’m afraid that I can’t do all the art works I have to do.
What are your current or upcoming projects?
Video and films. I want to make films, but I still don’t know how to start. Maybe just start...