A Studio Conversation with

Iris Smeds

We meet on a Sunday afternoon in Iris Smeds’ studio in the Liljevalchs’ Hub studio-complex in Solna. Iris is in the middle of preparations for her retrospective that is opening in the Hub’s large exhibition space on March 6th. Fabrics, backdrops and paintings that I recognize from previous performances line the studio walls.
A pink satin fabric (or is it polyester?) with the text “Fukten Brinner” (The Moisture Burns) takes over one of the walls. We talk about identity, the marketability of various things and Iris’ latest project “Dödsyoga” (Death Yoga).

How would you describe what you work with?
I work with text, video, photos and performance. I make video pieces that are separate from my performances. Thematically speaking you could probably say that I work with representation and with the marketability of people and art.

In what way do you work with marketability?
One example of my work that focused on it was “Iris Smeds Total Sell-Out” that I did at the Hotel Clarion in 2010. It was part of a series of performances that focused on me selling myself out as an artist. I pretty much just held auctions with my art and it ended with me selling out the whole of my career to the highest bidder. In order to be able to convincingly criticize norms or structures it’s good if you’ve tested what you’re against. You’ve got to know what it is you want to mirror. Besides, with “Total Sell-Out” it was necessary on my part. I actually had a need to auction off my works to draw in cash because I was broke. Marketability was also the theme in one of my later projects “The Actress; The Oracle; The Tragedy” that I showed at Index last year. I took a closer look at our marketability as people and at the expectation that you never stop playing the role of yourself. It’s a theme that is pretty close to me. In some way I have sold myself, played and experimented with my identity in different ways in various works. Really it’s all about the relationship between the fact that something has a worth in itself and that something has a value just because you can sell that worth.

"Iris Smeds Total Sell-Out" 2010 Installation view

”Iris Smeds Total Sell-Out” 2010
Installation view

How did it come about that you started working with performance?
When I was younger I was doing a whole lot of poetry and theatre. I come from a theatre family. I was a playwright when I was twenty and had a few plays that were performed at Dramalabbet in Stockholm.  But as a playwright it was hard for me to let go of a product that would then be developed further by actors and directors. I wanted to feel that I had complete control over my texts and how they would be read so in the end I wrote myself into my plays. From there it wasn’t such a stretch to start working with performance.

Where do you draw the line between theatre and performance?
For me it’s about what space it is performed in. Spaces devoted to fine art have a certain ability to transform anything into an object. Seriously speaking I have never fully understood what a performance is, but for me personally it’s about there being a two-dimensionality in the situation. But that’s probably because I have worked extensively with representing certain given situations like lectures, auctions etc. In the theatre space there is a contract, a fiction that allow you as audience to relax. With performance the line between fiction and authenticity is less clear, I also think that’s why I like working with credibility in a performative context, to sound so confident in an uncertain situation so the audience believe every single word I say.

"The Actress, The Oracle, The Tragedy" 2014 Video still

”The Actress, The Oracle, The Tragedy” 2014
Video still

In numerous works you’ve held seminars and lectured on the marketability of art and people. You often take the arguments that we are used to hearing further, to a quite absurd level.  How do you relate to your characters and the subjects that they stand for in your performances?
I see the marketability of literally everything as one of our biggest problems in today’s society and try to understand and explain how it works and what the structures look like. But even if I take the subject to its limit, it’s never irony; due to credibility I always need to find a logical system in what I write.  When I was working with the lectures on art and economics a lot in the end I became quite depressed as I started to see art only as a marketable object, and bought the idea that it is its commercial value that defines art.

Have you left behind that way of thinking now?
Yeah, I’d say so. It was a large part of the reason why I started with “Vaska Fimpen”. I needed to do something that wouldn’t be defined or valued as an art object.


Tell me about your project “Vaska Fimpen”.
“Vaska Fimpen” is my punk band. It is completely separate from my other projects and quite a long way from what I have done previously. It started as a performance and people probably think it is more of an artistic project than I consider it to be. For me it’s music and, even if the line between my performances and “Vaska Fimpen” fluctuates, I don’t want to call it art or performance.

It feels like you return to various themes you have worked with previously. Is that true?
Yeah, definitely. The marketability of art returns in my projects but in a slightly different way in my project “The Actress; The Oracle; The Tragedy”. There it becomes more personal because I talk about the marketable human. I’ve gone from talking about the value and non-value of art to the worth of humans. My latest project follows that theme and is about the whore. It’s gone from art, to the actor and now to the whore.

What is it about it that interests you?
I think it is the conception of the whore as the first female object. What I am writing about at the moment is how the whore created the capitalist system in order to be able to operate her business and how she built infrastructure to have streets to stand on. In that way she is the ultimate art object. She is a caricature of herself. For me it feels like the entirety of western dramaturgy is built upon the dead whore. The body, the spirit, the void and marketability. The constantly performed identity and the fact that you never stop working. It’s something special to work with a type of female character that is so explicitly objectified.


What’s your relation to the audience during your performances?
I almost always want to have an audience involved but I like when it’s a classic theatre setup, I mean that the public is there but observes rather than interacts. But in my upcoming project “Death Yoga” I’m going to teach yoga to those that turn up, so we’ll need to interact with each other. We’ll see how it goes.

Why “Death Yoga”?
The whole yoga culture and body/health mania is about control. I think there’s a death wish in there somewhere. But it’s also about me personally having been forced to think about my body. I have been a diabetic since childhood, have arthritis in my knee and have started eating vitamins, spinach and stuff like that. It is about life being the sickness. The starting point for “Death Yoga” is that in order to be Zen you have to be dead. To be in the now you’ve got to be so relaxed that the spirit leaves the body. There is a logic there that I get off on. It’s going be fun to go into a new character. I think of her as a health coach. I have started following Yoga Girl on Instagram to get inspiration.

You haven’t gone the classic route through the education system to become an artist. In what way has it influenced you that you haven’t taken the same university degree as a lot of the other artists based in Stockholm?
I don’t know. But I can imagine that it’s largely because of that that I have worked with themes that touch upon the structures of the art world. I have been forced to deal with it. How should I relate to the art world? How do you get into it? Do you even want to get in? I realized somewhere that you’ve got to make your way into it to survive as an artist.

"In Order to Eat Another Man's Soul" 2012 Video still

”In Order to Eat Another Man’s Soul” 2012
Video still

Maybe you also need to be a part of it in order to comment on it and to be listened to?
Yeah. You need to be in the space in order to act. The art world is so strange for everyone that doesn’t feel like they belong to it. And you let other people define if you have the right to be in it. It’s an extremely hierarchical system. It’s quite rewarding as a subject matter as you can see societal structures so clearly in miniature. It’s also really neo-liberal with the extreme competition and the extreme economic imbalances of power.

And the cultural balance of power.
Yeah, definitely. It’s another form of economy. You can think that I’m an outcast that hasn’t gone to art school but at the same time I come from a culture family. Calling myself an artist hasn’t been as far off for me as for others who have had to define themselves in front of their parents and themselves. I had a self-confidence that meant I could go another route outside of the school system. I have felt that I have just as much right to be in this space. Which is also something deeply problematic with the art space that it eliminates based on a mentally inherited belonging.

"The Oracle" 2014 Video still

”The Oracle” 2014
Video still

There may be something in that. I don’t think many had that self-confidence when they were questioned at twenty (myself included).
It’s not as if I was like Yoga Girl who is just total Zen, felt amazing and thought that I had the right to be in that space. It was a real anxiety driven period. I often hear from people after they see my performances that I am so brave, rather than that they thought it was good. I don’t really know how I should interpret that. But I think that I have had a great need to subject myself to things that I don’t know if I can handle. I get a kick out of it. That’s what it feels like before every new project.

What’s your next project?
Firstly I have a retrospective that opens March 6 here at Liljevalchs’ Hub in Solna where I am showing works from 2010 up until today. Then me and Bronwyn Bailey-Charteris, whom I met when I did a project at Index, are doing a project together in autumn about natural stages and performance as the public ornamentation of pre-existing places in the city. We sat down and wrote together, and it was fun because we definitely collaborate well together. We talk about the city as a theatre and that how we as citizens should take an active place in the existing space. The project is called “Natural Stages” and starts in autumn.

The conversation between Iris Smeds and Olga Krzeszowiec Malmsten took place in Stockholm on February 15, 2015.

Text: Olga Krzeszowiec Malmsten
Translation: Nicholas Lawrence
Photo: Iris Smeds, Olga Krzeszowiec Malmsten

Name: Iris Smeds
Born: 1984 inStockholm, SWE
Based: Stockholm, SWE
Education: Autodidact
Info: Retrospective at Liljevalchs’ Hub opening March 6th. The project “Natural Stages” concerning natural stages and performance in the existing spaces of the city starting autumn 2015 and “Death Yoga” at the Royal Institute of Art spring 2015.
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