An Interview with Benj Gerdes and Jennifer Hayashida
Benj Gerdes and Jennifer Hayashida are Brooklyn-based artists whose work confronts intersections of political discourse, knowledge production, and popular imagination. Hayashida is a poet and translator; Gerdes is a video and filmmaker, and also a co-organizer of the venerable collective 16Beaver. They fell in love in 2001, married in 2006, and began collaborating in 2007. Their first collaborative work, Room of the Sun, is an ongoing exploration of Ivar Kreuger, an early Swedish capitalist whose global empire of matchstick factories collapsed accusations of fraud. By bringing their talents together, Gerdes and Hayashida are redefining the essay film format and the character of radical art.
The Room of the Sun project includes, thus far, installations, essays, films, and videos. For example, the half-hour video essay Strike Anywhere is a beautifully photographed collage of archival images, interviews with Kreuger experts, footage of the Swedish Match factory, and iconic images of Swedish culture. The video opens up the mystery of Kreuger’s significance, rather than offering a strict biography. Populus Tremula condenses some elements from Strike Anywhere into a witty and poetic 16mm film packed with surprising metaphors found in the modern factories of Swedish Match.
I wanted to find out more about Gerdes’ and Hayashida’s working process, which they refer to as “artistic research.” I drove up to Woodstock to interrupt their vacation with a tape recorder and some questions. Talking with Gerdes and Hayashida is quite a lot like engaging with their work. Their sentences run together. Interesting ideas fly. Connections are made and subsequently called into question. Things can move pretty fast!
Strike Anywhere and Populus Tremula, along with other work by Gerdes and Hayashida, will be screening at Anthology Film Archives on Monday, September 13, at 7:30pm. This event is the fall season premiere of Flaherty NYC, a monthly film series showcasing risk-taking documentaries presented by The Flaherty. www.flahertyseminar.org
* * *
Penny Lane (Rail): When did you begin working on Room of the Sun? What was the impetus?
Jennifer Hayashida: Frequently, we go to Sweden because I grew up there and still have family there. In 2006, we were in a bookstore in Stockholm, and I picked up a biography of Ivar Kreuger, who’s ubiquitous there. Everyone recognizes his name, even if they don’t know anything about him. It’s like knowing who J. P. Morgan is [in America]. I started telling Benj about him, and we both started riffing on how he was a metaphor for so many other things we were already thinking about at the time. That led to the project.
Benj Gerdes: We hadn’t formally collaborated before, but of course we’d always shared ideas and work with one another a lot. When we started officially collaborating, it was nice because it felt like we were formalizing these roles that were already in place. We tried to think of one project that we could both approach in different ways. And at the time, I was really interested in doing a historical project, because there’s a way where if you [make a film] about, say, George W. Bush [i.e., Intelligence Failures, Gerdes 2003], people often come to it with certain preconceptions.
Hayashida: We wanted to find someone who people [in America] didn’t know about, so those preconceptions wouldn’t necessarily be in place.
Gerdes: The idea was to make a film about the past that was also an allegory for the present, and also to try to dislodge some of the common sense about how the present came to be. It’s a way of using history to try to rethink what our options might be [for the present].
Rail: So what’s the significance of the title?
Hayashida: Room of the Sun was the name that Kreuger, who was extraordinarily wealthy, gave to the atrium of his Park Avenue penthouse. He had this incredibly megalomaniacal image of himself. He saw himself as so powerful, as giving light to the people—
Gerdes: There’s all this iconography [with Kreuger] about the sun, and how his matches were more powerful than the sun. He promoted himself as a Promethean figure. When he sat at the head of the table in his conference room, there was a wood carving of Prometheus behind him, and he planned it as an optical effect. It looked like there was a lighting bolt coming out of his head.
Hayashida: And at the same time, he of course made a ridiculous profit. [Laughs.]
Rail: Why did you want to take a kind of ongoing, collaborative approach to the subject of Ivar Kreuger, with multiple iterations instead of one art object or film?
Hayashida: I found it generative. There was just so much material on Kreuger. We had archival materials, the interviews, the factory footage, and contemporary footage of Stockholm, plus just our own ideas about how people understand history.
Gerdes: We went to these giant archives, and we were just kind of taking stabs and looking at whatever we found. I mean, just to give you a visual idea of it: the largest archive [we went to] was a football field sized room. We knew there was no way we could do anything systematic. That led to this idea that the project could be dispersed across forms, and that [each work] could kind of lean on [other works in the series]. And that fit with the kind of historical work we were trying to do, which wasn’t authoritative. It wasn’t kind of a new “master history.” We knew that no one work [that we produced] would present itself as comprehensive. We wanted each work to open up questions on to the other works, and on to the larger questions the series generated.
Rail: How did you find your approach to Strike Anywhere, the video component of the series?
Hayashida: It’s a video essay. The essay form isn’t about answering; it’s about questioning, or trying. “Essayer” means “to try” in French. And I think the video represents many, many attempts to try to see, or understand, or at least get some traction in a particular historical moment. When we were researching Kreuger, there was just so much speculation, and so many vantage points, conservative analyses, progressive analyses—it was just all over the place. The form of the video—the fragmentation, the different voices—mirrors that. It reveals more questions than answers. We didn’t want one dominant narrative. We didn’t want to clean up his biography, or create a new biography. We didn’t want to have just one “expert” speaking. And that’s why it’s so disorienting.
Gerdes: The parts of the film where we have a back and forth voiceover [editor’s note: Jennifer and Benj both narrate the video] was a device that really worked to show that there wasn’t one dominant speaker, or only one history being performed. I also think that what we conceived of as the essay form was a little bit different [than most films in the genre]. And it’s also an argument about what an essay form could be. I think it’s a little bit more open and less tropish than some other work that I’ve been seeing lately I think, particularly for Jen, it was interesting what people expect, in terms of legibility, of something that has some relationship to documentary as opposed to what they might ask of a poem. [Laughs.] It’s pretty different.
Rail: Why is collaboration an important part of your art practice?
Gerdes: I could certainly say there’s a political or theoretical or ethical stake in [collaboration], which there is. But also it’s just fulfilling and I enjoy working with other people. And especially because of some of the things I’ve chosen to work on, I didn’t want to be the solitary American white guy working on it. Not in an identitarian way, but I wanted it not to be just my voice. I really enjoy that kind of confusion and learning from other people. It’s more interesting to me than working on a film in a more traditional way, where people have their set roles and there’s no breaking out of them. It’s not necessarily faster, you can’t necessarily get more done, and it’s not a priori even more ethically sound. It’s just important for me personally to work in ways that seem less hierarchical. In terms of collaborating with Jen, it’s nice to have something that’s neither of ours, but both of ours, but also more than that. I’d say, “I really liked this part you wrote,” and Jen would say, “No, you wrote that…I think.” [Laughs.] Everyone assumes that I did the images and Jen did the text, but in fact we did everything together. That kind of polyvocality is really important to us.
Rail: How did your ideas about Room of the Sun change as you were working on it?
Gerdes: Between 2008 and 2010, a lot changed. I think initially [the project] was an allegory about financial speculation. But after the crash happened, it seemed harder to know what the political moment of the work was. Also, as we were working on the project, the thing that made Sweden distinctive, which is the unique contract between capitalism and the welfare state, was being further dismantled. The railways were “opened” to competition and the state-run pharmacy was privatized, for example. And it’s exactly at the point that this stuff is unraveling, that the whole idea of trying to redefine what it means to be a social democracy like Sweden, that people are going back and trying to recuperate Ivar Kreuger as an early, wonderful capitalist hero. While we were researching, we found several economists in a more neoliberal school of thought who were really interested in Kreuger as an early model for various free trade agreements in the form of institutions like the W.T.O. and I.M.F., including mechanisms such as structural adjustment programs.
Hayashida: And he was an innovator in ways that really don’t get acknowledged. At that time, when Americans talked about foreign companies in the stock market, they were really talking only about Sweden and Kreuger. That’s mentioned in the video.
Gerdes: Kreuger’s downfall in 1932 caused the biggest stock market crash in Sweden’s history. Massive political and economic instability allowed the Social Democrats to consolidate their political power and start to implement Keynesian social welfare programs. So the Swedish social and economic safety nets that now are being dismantled came about as a direct result of failed financial speculation in Kreuger’s business empire, and now he’s being reclaimed by some as a hero, and so on. It’s ironic.
Rail: You write in your essay, “No More Strike Anywhere,” that you want to counter the dominant narrative about Ivar Kreuger. What is the dominant narrative about Kreuger in America?
Gerdes: He was really well known in the States during his time. Then a lot of people lost a lot of money because of him, and I think it’s a case where people don’t want to remember being burned. So he’s not very well known here. But where he is known, the [dominant narrative] places Kreuger in a lineage that starts with Charles Ponzi and ends with Bernie Madoff.
Rail: So he’s seen as a swindler, a fraud.
Gerdes: Yeah. But there’s also kind of a sense that he just played the market better than other people. One of the questions we have is whether this guy was really that much worse than anyone else in that kind of business. A lot of financial capitalism is cheating people. [Laughs.] So maybe he was just better at it.
Rail: Who are the people you interviewed in Strike Anywhere? Why did you choose these people, and not others?
Gerdes: We were in touch with various Swedish academics who had written about Kreuger [in the 1970s], and they weren’t interested. They basically said that Kreuger was old news, and they didn’t have anything to say.
Hayashida: As if he was somehow detached from what is happening now. I thought that was startling. Anyway, the people in our video are amateur historians. They aren’t affiliated with any [academic] institutions, and they’ve self-published.
Gerdes: Part of the challenge for us was to interview people that we might not agree with, and take them seriously. But the idea of amateur research was important, because they’re people who have become self-empowered and outspoken. We’re interested in what it is that gets someone to invest so much time and energy in one project, as opposed to some other project. And that’s particularly interesting for us in terms of how social and political change can be possible.
Rail: You’ve written that you don’t want to tell the straight story but wanted to open up space for questioning Ivar Kreuger’s legacy. What are some of the questions you wanted audiences to ask themselves?
Gerdes: There are certain relationships between capitalism and the welfare state that aren’t always seen. Kreuger’s history is a prehistory of neoliberal economics that’s not that well known. We want to show that even under social democracy, the state and capitalism were always—
Hayashida: In bed together, even in Sweden. Sweden had an economic, and—to a certain degree, territorial—empire. It was fascinating to see early images of Swedish corporations operating all over the world, especially in the global south. Sweden was participating in a certain kind of exploitation that was totally in line with other economic empires at that time. But that’s a history that goes largely unacknowledged. It runs parallel to the way Sweden sees itself as an innocent bystander in the world. I find that troubling. Politically, racially, economically, they see themselves as neutral. They let the Nazis transport goods through Sweden during World War II, and they claim that that was part of their neutrality. In Kreuger’s time, state power was more limited on a global scale, but here was Kreuger with an international global match monopoly in far more countries than Sweden had embassies or consulates.
Gerdes: It was very obviously a moment where capitalist expansion exceeded the scale of political governance. I’m taking this from the geographer Neil Smith, who discusses the creation of the nation-state in similar terms. Everything was up in the air. We felt as we were making the piece when a lot of the same questions were up in the air, and what was missing was more of a popular, social demand for something different, whether it’s more regulation, or a kind of social equality.
Hayashida: One of the things we discovered in research was a lot of hardcore left critiques from the 1930s, and translating them [from Swedish to English], and also translating them to the present. There’s a tongue-in-cheek article that we use at the end of Strike Anywhere called “The State is Good to Have,” and it resonates so clearly today in terms of the bailouts, deregulation, all this stuff. The article was written in this really small worker-run newspaper. I personally longed for that critique to be more prevalent now.
Rail: Can you describe Populus Tremula, the film component of the series? How is it different from Strike Anywhere?
Hayashida: That was a lot of fun. Not that the video wasn’t fun. [Laughs.] It’s made up of 16mm factory footage from the two existing Swedish Match factories in Sweden, one which produces the wood splints and boxes, and one which dips the matches and packages everything, coupled with a poetic text that we composed together. The text is laser burned onto the film.
Gerdes: On a formal level, it was about this relationship between matches, light, and fire. There’s also the idea of the match as metaphor in the 20th century. Ideas of sparking, flaming, and that a revolution could flare up. It was exciting to think about a relationship between matches and film, and the text being actually burned onto the print. Even the process of getting the negatives cut was interesting. It was hard to find someone who even does that anymore. People kept asking why we didn’t just transfer it to video. [Laughs.]
Hayashida: It’s so weird that matches even still exist. [Laughs.] They seem like they should be obsolete, as with the 16mm process.
Rail: What are you working on now?
Hayashida: Right now, we’re doing this project called Postcards to AZ in collaboration with the New Museum. We’ve set up tables at the Museum, and at other events, where we ask people to write postcards expressing support to organizations in Arizona that are working in opposition to the S.B. 1070.
Gerdes: We knew the project would launch at the New Museum’s annual Block Party, and so for the images on the postcards, we picked historical sites that were in the neighborhood around the Museum that were examples of protest or resistance in terms of immigrants’ rights, and that were also examples of cross-ethnic coalitions. We really wanted to use the project to connect immigration history in New York City with debates happening right now that often focus on the U.S.-Mexico border and which don’t make those connections to other places, times, and peoples.
Hayashida: We send the postcards to Arizona, and the organizations agree to show them or share them with the people they work with. It’s essentially a solidarity project. Being a grassroots organizer sucks in a lot of ways. And having someone writing from far away saying “I’m grateful for the work you’re doing,” or even just saying “New York Hearts You.” I believe that this kind of work is as important a political gesture as—
Rail: As saying “Fuck you,” to someone?
Hayashida: Yeah, exactly. And a lot of people were extremely prepared to do just that. They were ready to write a postcard saying, “What the fuck Arizona, why are you doing this?” People are fluent in that kind of political activity. But to actually write to a stranger and say, you know, “I’m with you, good luck,” seemed so much harder. And that’s sad.
Gerdes: Right, and that kind of imaginative leap, making the connection between everyday people, that’s the kind of politics we’re interested in. That question is the kind of question that’s often present in our work. Like in Room of the Sun, it’s about identifying a horizon line in contemporary political discourse and asking how it got to be there. We’re interested in finding a different kind of political imagination. Why aren’t we really asking for what we really want, in terms of an economic policy or immigration policy? Why do we stop here?