The Poetics of the Break Down, According to A Kassen

A Kassen is an artist collective based in Copenhagen, Denmark composed of Christian Bretton-Meyer, Morten Steen Hebsgaard, Søren Petersen and Tommy Petersen. Although the collective’s works cover a wide breadth of form and context, what gracefully ties them all together is a cyclical sense of play. A Kassen often dissect the familiar, rearrange it, and neatly present it back to the viewer—all with a wink and a persuasive contrast to your expectations. A Kassen is represented by Galleri Nicolai Wallner. Polina Bachlakova recently caught up with one of the four members, Tommy Petersen.

Polina Bachlakova: A Kassen. What does that moniker mean?

Tommy Petersen: Before we actually started working we did these proposals for decorations in art school, and we never got our decorations chosen. We always ended up in 2nd or 3rd place and got a small payment for that. A Kassen is employment insurance—so if you’re out of a job, that’s what you get. And of course when we were at the academy, that was always the issue—people talking about what you’re going to do afterwards. We were joking we would have our own employment insurance. So it’s a joke but it’s also kind of a loser’s name. But also, you don’t want to be looked at as unemployed so you might as well have this loser’s name instead.

PB: Playing on the idea of insurance and financing is something that comes up in your work a lot. Why do you think that’s a driving point of your work—is it to do with the state of the art market or just the economic state in general?

TP: I guess we like to work with and play with different structures that are already there. And to finance something through insurance is kind of a structure that’s already there, so the question for us is, how can we work with that? For us, it’s like hacking a system in the real world.

PB: I also saw the sculptures where you’re taking old classical sculptures and breaking them down. Would you say the point behind the destruction is more aggressive, or more playful?

TP: I don’t think it’s so aggressive, actually. I think it’s more of a poetic or alternative way of using materials… You have to break down something to build something new, but in a playful way. I try to see the poetics in things.

PB: So what about that idea of breaking down the old and making something new—what do you find so poetic about it?

TP: To see something that had a form and to change the form into something is poetic by nature. When you walk on the terrazzo floor we made, for instance, it’s the bits and pieces there you have to imagine going together. You have to build it in your own head… your mind has to work on a different level.

PB: So would you say a focal point of your work is getting the viewer to use their imagination?

TP: Yes. One of the things we always talk about is that it would be nice if people just felt inspired after seeing our work. The best experiences I have when going to shows is to get out and just feel inspired. It doesn’t need to be fixed on a certain work—just that you feel like the ceiling is lifted a bit.

PB: How do you work as a group? When you conceptualize a project, does it start with one person and jump to the next? Or does everyone have their own niche?

TP: It’s super different from work to work, but then again, each work is quite different. It comes from the same field of conceptualizing works, but some works are so simple that it’s just one idea that takes one person five seconds to think of… it’s more like a blitz. And for other works, we’ll hang out for a long time in the evenings because we have to deliver and try to push some ideas up. We quite like working with an architectural angle, like in our outdoor works. We like to have a specific place to work with and see the possibilities there—the limitations that are already there give us a broad way of approaching a project. Can we use the windows? Can we use the ceiling? And because we’re four people, we discuss the project and try to make the concept as precise as possible for ourselves. At the beginning we had a sense of humor and wanted our works to be approached in a light way—that was a common thing for us. We’ve been working together for quite some time (since 2004/5) and we have an intuition now for the direction we should take.

PB: Tell me about some of your projects. For example, your artist book, “Damaged by Water, Financed by Insurance”.

TP: There are several reasons behind that book and we may have several among the group as well. We see it differently and sometimes when we conceptualize a work, you imagine it one way in your head but when it comes down to the practical stuff, it’s like “oh, we still have different ideas in our heads.” For the book I think it’s similar to the name A Kassen: it’s a loser’s book. A water-damaged book is not normally what you would try and get instead of a new clean straight book.

PB: What are some things you’ve been working on recently?

TP: We had made a work for CHART Art Fair. It’s a puddle we cast in aluminum. Instead of horizontal, it’s vertical and it becomes this mirror and this strange shape. It’s really a plain sculpture in a way but again, the shape of it is given already so we don’t form the shape.

PB: So would you say in general in your work you stick to established forms and give them new life or meaning?

TP: In a way we like when the shaping and the coloring of a work is already there. We don’t want to invent the shape and the figure ourselves.

PB: I remember reading that pop art is influential to you. Some of your projects touch upon some of pop art’s key points of mechanical reproduction by engaging with our contemporary form of mechanical reproduction: outsourcing. Is this connection relevant to you?

TP: In a way, it’s not possible to do production here because it would be way too expensive to make things like that here in Denmark. The concept takes its own path sometimes. Ok, we have the idea; how do we make the solution for it? It then raises questions of how the global world is connected, and that’s ok with us.

PB: Considering the conceptual implications outsourcing could bear for your work, you seem to have a bit of a utopian attitude to the messages inherent in your art. Would you say that in general you guys have a utopian or hopeful attitude to producing artwork?

TP: I guess we try to avoid putting political statements out, or saying something specific. The pieces have to be open with multiple readings for each work. But I like that. You can see it as playful and humorous but on the other hand, it has more serious topics in it also.

I think that to be an artist you have to be in a dream world. Hopefully, you do something that makes the world a better place. How naïve of me to say! But for sure it’s utopian, and again, it’s this idea—to inspire people. To go out with dreams and ideas and do something.