Julian Hetzel « There is a thin line between an artist and activist »

Born in Germany, Julian Hetzel works and lives in Utrecht in Netherlands. As a visual artist and a musician for several years, he develops a research at the crossroads between performance, theater and visual arts. Created in Amsterdam last spring, The Automated Sniper is presented for the first time in France at the festival Actoral in Marseille on September 27 and 28. He agreed to answer our questions.

You’ve been signing your own performances for a few years now. Looking at your career, are there any similarities between your different pieces?

Looking at my works from a distance, I understand that they are all related, connected and sourced from the same questions. In some cases there are obvious links between the subjects. One project can grow out of the other, sharing the same research, even if that is not the initial intention. I can see a clear line between the visual and conceptual side of my creations. The inner logic of some works follow a similar structure. It seems like my team and I develop a certain way of constructing conceptual twists that are becoming a signature. More often my works generate some sort of ethical friction, a rupture in the moral value system of the spectator and I think this is the core of my intentions.

How does The Automated Sniper fit into your artistic research?

I try to make people question themselves and reconsider the circumstances they are in. I am interested in the economical side of things. What is the economy behind our everyday activities? I’m working with ethical values – as a material. I intend to question and redefine established value systems through proposing alternative realities. In some moments this requires unorthodox methods and measures and might lead to an unexpected outcome. I consider “responsibility” to be one of the most important subjects of this performance. This in particular concerns the audience’s role. In The Automated Sniper, modes of watching are being challenged. Where is the line between being a spectator, a witness, an accomplice and the perpetrator? At which point are our hands dirty? How far are we willing to go? When does watching become participating?

Can you come back to the genesis of The Automated Sniper? How did you get the idea and the desire to make this performance?

It all started by giving fear a physicality. The Automated Sniper was initially based upon trying to generate a permanent threat. I researched ways to inflict fear upon the performers and during rehearsals we fantasised about a God like, entity that would fly above the people, observe them, punish and possibly destroy them. Here, religious motives and technology became intertwined and we entered the realm of warfare. Drones have divine powers; they are omnipresent, all seeing, all knowing and their attribution to asymmetrical warfare became the creative influence for the piece. I was not interested in letting a drone fly around the theatre space, so I looked for a more abstract representation of that idea. I imagined a device that would be capable of targeting and shooting the performers. Creating the shooting device was the first concrete step in the process. All of the elements about art and creation through destruction followed after.

What were the materials from which you began to conceptualise this performance?

We went through all sorts of media, texts, images, videos – deriving from the news, the internet, image archives, as well as scientific books about warfare and psychology. Miguel Melgares (dramaturg), and I watched endless amounts of drone-strike videos online and studied the subject of the “gamefication of violence”. My fascination in drones and especially for the concept of asymmetrical warfare became the central element of the research. Two references that were highly influential for my research: « The drone papers” from theintercept.com and Drone Theory which is an excellent book by french writer and theoretician Grégoire Chamayou. His text was a revelation and a huge inspiration during the process.

How did you work through the writing time of The Automated Sniper?

The creative process was split in two parts. At the end of the first block of our “research and development phase” we shared a work-in-process with the public and presented the installation version – a ten minute loop in a 1:1 set up. At that time we had a basic model of the shooting-device and we understood the potential of the live interaction between the audience and the performers through our machine. We prepared a basic script for the gamer to be introduced to the gaming device. We involved the expertise and the creative input of other authors to fuel the writing process. All these fragments became the base for the text and we established a system of shared authorship between Ana Wild (performer), Miguel Melgares and me. The three of us worked online on an open document and edited the text parallel to the rehearsals.

Concretely, how does this « automatic weapon » work?

We prefer not to call it a weapon, as this causes trouble with the theatre security regulations. We invented the term, L.D.P. (Long Distance Printer) instead. In fact it is a device which projects colour shells from a distance. It is a robotic arm that can rotate in two axis. It is designed and developed by Hannes Waldschütz a machine artist from Leipzig. The device is assembled from custom made laser cut aluminium parts. It is based on paintball technology and contains parts of a high precision paintball marker that can be triggered remotely via a USB-game controller. The L.D.P. runs on high pressure and is sourced by a 15-litre compressed air/scuba diving tank. The eye of the device is a high resolution camera with a night vision mode plus it is equipped with a laser pointer to mark the target. The device can release ten bullets per second and can even be controlled via the internet.

The Automated Sniper is both a performance and an installation. What are the particularities of each of the two sets?

In the installation version, each audience member can take the chair of the gamer and is invited to operate the surveillance camera and shooting-device that fires at the performers in a different space. Each spectator has the immersive experience of playing a computer game before they are asked to enter into the reality of where they have fired. In the theatre version, the audience has the possibility to interact too. We invite volunteers to participate as gamers. Violence is part and parcel of their interaction. Each of the gamers, who control the weapon via a gamepad, become a choreographer for that moment. They make the performers move, out of necessity, for fear of their own safety. The conditions in the theatre space itself creates violence and terror towards the performers on stage.

How this set participate in the writing bodies in the stage ?

The apparatus which fires at the bodies is physically painful, provokes stress and produces adrenaline. The performativity of the two actors on stage is at times reduced to the simple function of protecting themselves. However, the results of their responses produce images and movements that can be considered to be “modern” dance. The shelters they build to protect themselves from the impact of the bullets transform into sculptures with an artistic value, though the motivation to create them comes from a different cause.

Your work offers a critical look toward our contemporary society. Do you consider yourself as a political artist?

I don’t agree on labelling myself as a political artist. I’m a critical observer and a news addict. I hope that art is and always will be, without any purpose or necessity. Art should resist to provide a service to society and stay independent and free from these kind of tasks. If it happens that an artwork finds a political or social actuality, it can produce great surplus and relevance but it cannot be the intention. There is a thin line between an artist and activist and I prefer to keep them separate. I think it should always be the freedom of the individual artist to decide to give a work a specific direction. The work itself may as a result, articulate a political statement.

This interview is also available in french

Concept & direction Julian Hetzel. Machine designHannes Waldschütz. Dramaturgy Miguel Angel Melgares. Performers Bas van Rijnsoever, Claudio Ritfeld, Ana Wild technical director Tymen Bergman. Artistic collaborator Joachim Robbrecht. Costume design Karianne Hoenderkamp. Light design Nico de Rooij. Dramaturgy assistant Luc Groen, Artun Alaska.