Interview with Peter Moosgaard
On the research of cargo cults and a unique practice-based residency in Manila
Where do you come from?
I grew out of people. I live in Vienna
What are cargo cults and when did you first develop your interest in studying the practice?
A cargo cult is a practice in indigenous populations that consists in imitating western culture and technology with the hope of arriving at the same result. For the followers of a cargo cult, symbolic powers and the desire to own lead to various ritual practices of simulation, caricature and plagiarism. I'm interested in how these practices reflect in western societies and how culture is performative. Not in a pejorative way as it is often used in "cargo cult programming or economy”, but more of how we are mostly unaware that simulating things we desire, can have real consequences.
I first became interested in cargo cults and all forms of Shanzhai when I was fed up with media art / digital art. This kind of post-internet, technological art is mostly unaware of ideological implications, as it follows fast developments initiated by companies like Apps, VR, 3D printing and so on. The artist is always a fulfiller of a strange neoliberal agenda, of a “propaganda of innovation“ as Nicolas Maigret called it. If the art is supposedly critical, it is critical on a superficial, or let’s say aesthetic level - still embedded in a certain technological framework and highly specified market. It’s like bombing for peace or fucking for virginity... So I started to imitate things with primitive materials, make ritualistic replicas and mockups of artworks, quantum computers, drones, smartphones made of wood. As an antagonist practice to self-expression and progress so to say.
Can you unpack for us the beginnings of your project Super Cargo?
Since 2013, “Supercargo“ has been the means by which I have collected and performed ritual appropriations and subversive imitations of technology and products of mass consumption. It’s hard to believe, but I read about the cargo cults on a trivial pursuit card. And as the trivial is the “common”, a form of archetype, I found it suitable to use that as a creation myth. It developed to the point of an obsession, as the phenomenon of the cargo cults speaks of so many non-binary ways of approaching the world. It embraces ambivalence, it simply sets aside oppositions we falsely indulge in so much: real vs fake, performer vs spectator, original vs copy, the familiar vs the foreign, and so on. I could never fully understand it because it might be impossible to understand. Yet we know the workings of the cargo cult in western society: the longing for godlike products on the horizon, re-performing things that work, imitate things that go well on the market. Heck, you could say that as kids we start to use words we don't even understand. We merely know they have certain effects on the world around us. That´s how it all starts i guess. And if people can't understand why someone would make a wooden iPhone without a function, you could ask a painter the same thing. Why would somebody paint a portrait of a person? Take a picture of something?
You also look a lot at branding (Coca-cola, Adidas, Bauhaus Signet, Pepsi). What is the logo for Super Cargo? What do you aim to achieve by branding the research also?
I use brands and logos in Supercargo because i consider them (as I do wood, stone, plants, waste etc ..) global materials to work with. I'm looking for a hyperculture here, a global art form, but free from cultural romanticisms. They are in a strange way totems in my mind, like billions of dollars were spent to get these logos into my head, now i want to get them out. I want to use them. Maybe they are sort of global archetypes, but i simply think one can re-appropriate them and fill them with new meaning. Like why do i have to buy a Gucci product to feel Gucci? Can´t I just paint the logo on a t-shirt myself or draw it on a paper bag? That's how magic works. I branded my practice “Supercargo“ because everything today is about branding, even hardcore conceptual art and spirituality. If there’s no way out, you have to go in even deeper. Maybe find the sacred in the profane.
We discussed previously quite at length about cargo cults as one effect of colonial histories. Can you describe your role as an artist and researcher in this?
The role of the artist here is that of intention-less observer - less subjectivity, the ideological fallout people consider „art“. The artist is involved, yet he/she always remains alien to the subject. A bit, if you like, the method of “participatory observation“ in anthropology. You're inside and outside all the time, like in a capitalist society. Also I had to consider my position coming to the island as a white man, associated with the colonial past (although i am from Austria and Austria never had any colonies). Still I had to address it, ignoring that is not an option. Everybody first assumed I was from the USA, named Joe and very very rich. I had to clarify and have many conversations before getting a grasp on these post-colonial implications. I once impersonated Werner Herzogs´ Fizzcaraldo, a caricature of the white man so to say, showing a madness and absurdity of colonialism. I screamed "I WANT MY BAUHAUS!!" As I hoped the people there found it very funny. That was only the beginning of a long process, finding out about common simplifications about indigenousness and whiteness alike. You wouldn’t believe how complex things actually are once you dig deeper...
Can you describe to us about the residency you took in Manila? Did you go into the residency with the idea of Bauhaus objects in mind?
As I was starting the residency on a secluded island in the Philippines, I was looking for a point of reference. Again, no individual ideas, no expression, something ready-made so to speak. So I found a book about the Bauhaus, famous school of design. I discovered that founder Walter Gropius originally planned to start modernism as a secret global cult, a secret society who would bring these principles to the world. They would have rituals around their newly built houses, the architects would wear robes and light fires etc… Modern design as we know it - cold and rational - emerged later. I found the “Bauhaus” a perfect point of reference on a secluded island, because the forms were simple, very possible to re-build under extreme conditions. Housed with a family of fishermen, without electricity or electronic devices, I began to re-create works from the book with very basic materials - plants, sheets, floatsam, branches... Works and studies of the modernist days were repeated in an almost ritualistic way.
A central piece of the project was a downsized model of “Fallingwater” a famous building by Frank Llyod Wright, rebuilt with bamboo in the middle of the jungle. I worked in a provisional studio under a mango tree, also replicated Walter Gropius’ office and Kandinsky’s dining room in the jungle. In “Bauhaus Ayoke” I tried to approach ideas of modernity itself in a nearly ethnographic, phenomenological manner. As if, lets say, an exhibition was a ritual to confront the very challenges of our existence. At some point I started to collaborate with the local community. I was interested in what the carpenters of Ayoke would think about these designs, what they would make of it.
With this collaboration much more than new objects emerged. You could say, the result was more of a social sculpture - reminding of Joseph Beuys...
How did your collaborators there react to making these?
I soon asked local boatbuilders of Ayoke for help as I was going crazy working in the jungle, if they could re-construct some of the chairs and weavings from this Era, possibly even improve them. I only commissioned these works so to say. The men replied: “Of course, but we will do it our way!” which was great, like new phenotypes of these designs emerged in a different environment. As it is always some people were interested in the project, some were not, but the original pictures became somewhat of a communication point here. I did not speak their native language, but the forms & illustrations in the MoMA book became a language in its own right. With this collaboration much more than new objects emerged. You could say, the result was more of a social sculpture - reminding of Joseph Beuys. The aesthetics of the classic Avant-Gardes were reconfigured, reimagined in cooperation with the community of Ayoke. As a means of communication between western and filipino mythologies... a sort of syncretism if you like.
It’s interesting the locals were working from images of the end product and thinking about the process based on their own body of knowledge. Looking at their process, what were some methods you saw were same or different?
Yes, it was surprising, some chairs were easier to reproduce than others. In times of hyperavailability I find it interesting to have certain limitations, like the limitations of a desert or an island in that case... The chairs of Marcel Breuer were easier, we would use breadfruit and mango wood, also floatsam found on the beach. Some chairs in the pictures had bent steel in them, which would be simulated with bamboo. The boatbuilders knew this technique of how to bend bamboo to fit the casco - a boat’s body, were the bamboo would slowly be bent over fire. Another abstract design by Josef & Anni Albers instantly reminded the women of their pandan weaving technique. It was fascinating on what phenotypes emerged, how traditional and industrial methods would meet and negotiate over the same design.
Where are the objects today? Were they ever used?
"I like the idea, that a mansion by the famous Lloyd Wright is now inhabited by parrots."
The works produced on the island were left behind, it was hard enough to get there. I always knew that only the documentation and the story would survive. Buildings, furniture, designs, they now tell an alternate story, as if modernism grew out of natural conditions instead of urban functionality. Which could be a mystery to future visitors of the island, but yes some of the chairs are still in use on Ayoke. The replica of Wassily Kandindkys dining room was soon used by youngsters as a meeting point, a place to hang. I don’t know about the "Fallingwater“ building in the jungle. Maybe kids play there or birds build their nests, maybe it was disemboweled …I really don’t know. I like the idea, that a mansion by the famous Lloyd Wright is now inhabited by parrots.
In our first discussions, you mentioned possibly making future visits to the site to look at the impact of your work on the society. How are you thinking about this now?
I would not do it myself as I am too involved personally, I would not be a suitable observer. A good friend, Bernhard Garnicnig is planning a second expedition to the island to document the remaining artifacts, conduct interviews etc... It will be the exploration of this new speculative “Bauhaus Cult” in the Philippines. It will probably add to the mythologies of art history, and the stories told on Ayoke. That is what i hope.
Where do you take this project next?
Next I will exchange all products of capitalism with mockups and ship them around the globe because it’s cheaper.
Special thanks from the artist to:
Project "Bauhaus Ayoke" to the people of Ayoke, only to name a few: Angely Chi, Larry O. Maturan, Libet Nacamay, Julieta Bucalon, Esmeraldo Bou, Susanna Guarte, Arnold Orillaneda, Christian B., Dante Cohero, Marta Moreno Munoz and her amazing Unifiedfield Residency and many many more.