Paul Perry interviewed by Jeroen Siebielink for Next! Magazine. Published April 2000.

SIEBELINK: What kind of artist are you? How do you see yourself in the scales:

  • engaged -- non-engaged,
  • autonomous -- non-autonomous,
  • aesthetic -- non-aesthetic,
  • conceptual -- non-conceptual?
  • PERRY: Whoa! That's a difficult question. Especially considering the 'scales' that you brought along to weigh me with.

    But okay, let's see. First am I 'engaged' or 'not engaged'? The simple answer would be that I'm 'not engaged.' At least I think that my work is not concerned with 'political correctness.'

    In general I find that 'engaged' artists, trying to play the conscience of society (concerned with human relations) or the conscience of the earth (concerned with the environment) produce propaganda rather than art. The trouble is that most 'engaged' artists get their information about the world from the media rather than from their own observations and we all know how the media love to spin the issues in order to capture our attention and entertain us. Thus 'engaged' artists tend to build their work on false assumptions obtained from the media. It ends up being nothing more than a carrier of someone else's 'false' message.

    Next, you ask am I an autonomous artist or not? Well, in the past a lot of my own work has explored and experimented with various issues of biological, organizational and cultural autonomy -- but I don't think this is what you mean by your question.

    Do I, as an artist, live in the splendid isolation of my studio, removed from the reality of the social, political and economic changes that are currently rocking the world? The answer is no. I'm online. I'm an information junky. I'm deeply interested in almost everything that is going on but sports.

    Then you ask, am I an 'aesthetic or non-aesthetic' artist? This one is simple. All art is aesthetic. As an artist I make art. Therefore I am an aesthetic artist.

    Lastly you ask, am I a 'conceptual artist' or not? Well, years ago my work was described as neo-conceptual, but I never really understood what that actually meant. I do like to think and am not afraid of art that 'engages' both the mind as well as the senses. Butwhat I believe is more important these days is that art be 'proactive' rather than passive. The poet Archibald MacLeish once wrote that 'a poem should not mean but be', well I think the same is true for art. Art should be not mean, art should be. And if art is going to 'be,' why shouldn't it 'be' radical and transformative? Why shouldn't it change the world?

    SIEBELINK: Could you give me some examples of your work, of which you like to be asociated with in this context?

    PERRY: I'm interested in the future. I'm also interested in everything we are afraid of. Over the last couple of years I've been particularly interested in law and medicine. Law because of the idea that complex structures and behaviors generally emerge from the interaction of a few simple rules. The trick is to find the right rules and then allow processes such as evolution to do their work. Recently I've made a few pieces that either changed or ammended sets of rules or laws.

    Medicine also fascinates me. Many commentators feel that the innovative force of the last century was a product of the so called industrial-military complex. I see the next major innovative force in our society is going to come from the medical-industrial complex. I had an opportunity a while back to work with an internationally renowned molecular cell biologist. We made a work together. I was able to immortalize one of my white blood cells by fusing it with an immortal cancer cell from a mouse. We called the work 'Good and Evil on the Long Voyage.' I'm still shocked that I we could actually do this.

    SIEBELINK: Where stands the Triple P-project in this spectrum?

    PERRY: That was a very interesting project. Imagine being invited by the CEO of a multinational IT company to talk rather than paint pretty pictures to decorate the walls of his office. Over the period of several years we met regularly and discussed Triple P's corporate identity. Where does it come from? How is it produced? How is it maintained? Where is it going? Later I had a chance to work with a team to prepare the PR for the company's IPO on the Nasdaq. I learned a lot about corporate culture from this experience. It also really started me thinking seriously about identity issues, and the fact that identity is not an object, but "... a process with adresses for all the different directions and dimensions in which it moves."

    SIEBELINK: Looking back: how do you feel, thinking about the artist's role in companies?

    PERRY: At the time, from 1992 to 1995, I don't think that many artists were working like this in companies. I believe that the idea is catching on now. Working with the right artist is very important. I also think that there is a difference between using an artist to work with a company's 'human resources' and using an artist in 'strategic planning' or 'knowledge management.'

    SIEBELINK: What are your more recent experiences with in- or extracompany work?

    PERRY: The last couple of years I've worked as a consultant to a new media institute in Groningen. Recently I've done some work for KPN Research and I'm currently working on a project with the largest energy distributer in the Netherlands. Everyone these days is interested in their future. And they all believe, as far as their future is concerned, that nothing is true and everything is permitted.

    SIEBELINK: Can you merge your system with that of companies?

    PERRY: Yes. It's certainly possible to look at some companies as art or as artworks in themselves. At heart I'm a McLuhanist, I believe that the form is more important than the content, that the form actually says more than the content. The medium is certainly the message. Companies are nothing other than forms or systems to generate wealth. As long as their form, their system, is malleable we can do art together and find new ways to generate wealth.

    SIEBELINK: After the Triple P-experience, do you think that art can still do more than be enjoyed, compensate, enlighten? Can it really give inspiration to hardheaded managers?

    PERRY: In general 'art' is pretty marginalized within our society and within the business world, which is too bad. I know more than a couple of business gurus that I personally consider to be 'top artists,' but you will never hear them use the term. Given the climate who is to blame them? I myself prefer to read 'Fast Company' over 'Metropolis M' (a Dutch art magazine).

    On the other hand, 'art' still represents an incredible potential within our culture. What do you mean by inspiration? Art is for change, not for people.

    Paul Perry
    Het bedrijf als kunstvorm

    Paul Perry is wel eens 'neo-conceptueel' kunstenaar genoemd. Hij weet nog steeds niet wat het betekent. 'Geëngageerd' is het ook niet helemaal, dat riekt hem te veel naar politieke correctheid. En ook naar propaganda, het uitdragen van de valse boodschap van een ander. Zijn aversie zit zo: "Veel geëngageerde kunstenaars krijgen hun informatie over de wereld niet zozeer via eigen observaties, maar vooral via de reguliere media - en we weten allemaal hoe die zaken verdraaien om onze aandacht te trekken en ons te entertainen."

    En 'autonoom', nog zo'n krap kunstenaarshokje, is hij ook niet. "Bevind ik mij in de splendid isolation van mijn studio, ver weg van de wereld? Nee. Ik ben online; ik ben een informatiejunk." Maar wat is hij dan wel? "Ik ben een kunstenaar die zich bezighoudt met de toekomst, met het ontdekken en exploiteren van niches daarin."

    Die instelling sprak een multinational wel aan. In 1992, toen kunstenaars en ondernemers elkaar nog vies aankeken, gaf automatiseringsbedrijf Triple P hem de opdracht een nieuwe identiteit te bedenken. "Stel je voor: ik werd zo maar uitgenodigd door de CEO van een multinational! Niet om leuke plaatjes voor zijn kantoor te schilderen, maar om te praten." Perry maakte geen logo of object, maar kwam met A Bold Proposal, een geschreven provocatie. Dat werd de start van een onderzoek naar het idee 'identiteit'.

    Volgden ten kantore van de handelaar in netwerktechnologie vele discussies met de CEO, zo'n vier jaar lang: Wat is identiteit? Waar komt het vandaan? En: Waar gaat het heen? Perry leerde het fundamentele verschil tussen de interne en externe dynamiek van een bedrijf kennen, en de constante veranderingen die hierin plaatsvinden. Daarom stelde hij in plaats van een vaste identitieit een 'fluid identity' voor - een idee waarvoor de tijd nog niet rijp bleek. Later begeleidde Perry Triple P bij diens gang naar de Nasdaq. Hij vertrok daar voortijdig, wegens een ethisch meningsverschil met de projectleider.

    Inmiddels bogen zich allerlei kunstcommentatoren over dit 'alleszins interessante experiment' (De Witte Raaf). Een van hen concludeerde dat 'Perry zich heeft vergist in de mogelijkheden zijn systeem samen te kunnen voegen met dat van een bedrijf' (Decorum). Perry is het hier niet mee eens: "Sommige bedrijven zijn kunstwerken op zichzelf. Ik ben een McLuhanist - ik geloof dat vorm belangrijker is dan de inhoud. Uiteindelijk zegt vorm méér - the medium is the message. Bedrijven zijn niets anders dan systemen (vormen) die rijkdom genereren: geld, ideeen, schoonheid, enz. Zo lang die vorm smeedbaar is, we can do art together and find new ways to generate wealth." Gelooft Perry dat managers werkelijk open staan voor kunstenaars? "Ik heb net een strategische opdracht voor KPN afgerond, ik begin net aan een klus voor Nuon. Iedereen denkt na over de toekomst, en denkt daar op dezelfde manier over. Zoals een Perzische dichter uit de 11e eeuw schreef: Nothing is true, everything is permitted."

    Perry vindt het toch triest dat de positie van kunst nog zo marginaal is in de samenleving. Vooral het bedrijfsleven kan in zijn ogen profiteren van de transformerende kracht van kunst. "Ik ken een paar visionaire bedrijfsadviseurs die ik werkelijk beschouw als topkunstenaars, hoewel ze zichzelf nooit zo zullen beschrijven." Maar dat kan Perry zich goed voorstellen. Tenslotte leest hij zelf liever Fast Company dan Metropolis M. Maar kunst kán bedrijven dus inspireren? "Wat bedoel je met inspiratie? Art is for change, not for people."