Laurids Andersen-Sonne visited by Erin Latham

During a recent trip to North Carolina to visit a friend, I met experimental filmmaker and Denmark native artist Laurids Andersen-Sonne. Experiencing his studio was lovely, the space filled with his own experiments in work that references nature while playing with whimsy. Laurids films consider how humans categorize nature through logical knowledge but that humans can never fully understand nature because we can’t know anything outside of human experience. We sat down in the giant sculpture studio to chat about his upcoming work and how this vain of his work came about through the investigation of nature in human understanding.

 How has your degree in anthropology influenced the work you’re making?

I think of my work as the way I engage with the things I’m interested in. I came from a trajectory of having studied art in an art preparatory school in Denmark, but when it became time to apply to the art academy I did not find it to be right for me and the way it think and make art. Instead I studied anthropology because I could not at that point, come to terms with the structure of the art academy, of how you are focused into learning in a specific medium, where so much seems to be about the personal but not about observing the world around us. I decided to study anthropology because I thought it was much more in tune with my way of thinking. I also grew up with anthropologists and people who were into working on all sorts of projects involving cultural exchange and understanding. I found that in the studying in school and writing paper after paper there was a lack of immediacy. A lack of contact with people. I guess it became very theoretical. I wanted to find a balance between something theoretical and empirical, or at least something here and now.

I was lucky to find a happy medium by becoming part of collaborative project called Parfyme, which my friends Pelle Brage and Ebbe Dam Meinild had started working on a few years prior to my involvement. Here I found that we collectively could drive new and interesting things forward, by coming with different experiences. Ebbe studied economy and Pelle was at the art academy. We also started working with Douglas Paulson, who brought his own distinct perception and style.  

We were working in public space in socially engaged relational artwork. The key for me was that I was working with people and with sites where the process was the most important part. The improvisation of doing things and developing a project over time with these factors in space was vital for me.

 How did the work manifest itself?

It depended upon the project. Later in my time in the collective, about five years into my involvement, we created a project called the Harbor Laboratory. Which was part of a Biennial in Copenhagen. We experimented with the ability of people to use the harbor of Copenhagen. Unfortunately, the waterfront has often been used for financial institutions in spaces where the waterfront could be utilized for the common good. We had a large plot of land on the harbor where we installed a shipping container and a workman’s hut and for over half a year we went to work every day facilitating experiments in the public use of the harbor. We allowed people to come up with their own experiments but also created experiments ourselves. We had a floating museum, a sea monster that travelled around the harbor, and five or six paddle boats people could borrow for free with the caveat that they had to write a report of their endeavor when they returned. We publicized these on the web but also created information stations around the city in order to gather people’s ideas about the harbor. In this project we also facilitated something called ‘Adventure Squad’ where people could go on adventures with the paddle boats in various modified states. One adventure squad was to see if you could get to the ‘Little Mermaid’ which is a sculpture at the end of the harbor by hitchhiking and attaching the paddle boat to other boats.

Were there other projects you worked on in the collective?

Yes we really worked a lot and every project we did was dependent on the initial premises. Sometimes they were about larger political issues or about smaller distinct localities, some projects were more performative and included video work and comic illustrations. I don’t think we ever considered our work as Parfyme medium specific, it was more about work coming from a specific world view and a desire to engage with the world. One such smaller project was entitled Gedser: time to move your Butt! In this project we were hired to discuss city renewal or rejuvenation of a certain area of Denmark that has been doing poorly and financially has a lack of opportunities. The Municipality felt that the way to deal with this was to build a fitness park, which seemed ridiculous to us. The community has no school and no sources of employment, but this was their solution. So, we started asking how building a fitness park was going to help people when there were bigger fundamental questions at stake. Over a few days we decided to make our own fitness park in the woods. We created it with local kids and we constructed a story about a King who is not interested in change, who lives in the forest and tricksters come in and build a fitness park. We created a film and a comic book but what was best about it was the engagement with the public and the social practice of working with the kids in the community.

Did your time in Parfyme lead you to the experimental film program at Duke?

After having done all the work in collective and with communities and having some years away from making my own art while being engaged in teaching art in after-school programs, I began to think about a way to get back to anthropology but not lose the artmaking processes.

I found myself mentally in the in-between state of anthropology and art. It is a place I like to find myself. In Parfyme it became less about thinking about things and more about action.

I like doing things, but I felt like there was not enough contemplation and we were also becoming part of the machine. We began to churn out works one after the other, and that was hard to keep up with as the nature of the work was often very physical and labor intensive.

I think sometimes the work wouldn’t be as good as I would have liked or have the substance I wanted. The dynamics of the group faltered because we were also four people located in different places, which made it difficult. There was a question of how we could sustain that when people were moving forward with their lives. I found myself wanting to come to this MFA program because it seemed like a place where one could both engage in academic contemplation while also being a practicing artist.This in between state is something I’m still figuring out and still struggling with because the maker side of me takes over. It’s a hard balance to find in thinking and writing and reading but also keeping up with making. I feel that my intellectual process suffers due to my material or filming process sometimes. But at the same time this is also the fun part about it that you constantly have to negotiate your own path. A path that is constantly fluctuating and driving the way that I make and think about things in new directions.

Is that why text is included in some of your work?

The text simply becomes another way of thinking about topics I’m engaged in. Part of it is about needing to create in the tactile making after spending a day of editing a film. I am trying to engage it from different materiality and often from a silly and open place. Right now, my work is primarily in 16mm film, but I need the other stuff to inform the way I’m working and thinking about it. The different material, like drawing or text become different instances that are denoted in time in contrast to or in conversation with the moving image.

Can you talk about the work you are currently making? Is it conceptually or process driven?

In essence, the work I’m making now is my own investigation in trying to engage the question of human relationships to non-human beings and how we produce knowledge about these and our own being, through film, sculpture, and drawing. I am interested in thinking about our desire for knowing and our attempts to understand the world and our being in it. I am also interested in our failure to look at the natural world on its own terms, in opposition to how we observe it from our own determined rules of understanding which we equate with knowledge. Here, I am interested in thinking of different modes of knowledge; the tactile, or the visual or for instance thinking of a drawing holding as much information as a written text, and manipulating how a hand-written text becomes a drawing. This is the way I’m thinking about when immersed in the documentary subjects of the film work but also it is a framework that I carry over into my own more personal expression. I’m incorporating different sites of knowledge in working in this way. George Marcus an anthropologist wrote about the multi-sided perception of ethnographic knowledge, that we can’t rely on a single site to understand the world in the current. He’s talking much more about global processes and how people communicate but for me it’s important to engage in the different materiality and processes to get a better understanding of the subject matter I use.

Does the content inform your material? Or is it the other way around?

Vice versa. When I’m editing a piece and I come to a snag, I make a drawing or something sculptural. Making something with my hands makes me think differently about my editing and maybe that even leads me to work with a different material. I’m also thinking about these as different forms of knowledge coming together. For example, in the sculptural work there is a tactile knowledge that comes from learning by making as part of the learning process. Working with the material informs me about what’s next. In this way it’s all meshwork where no one activity or material stands alone, it might be something in itself but it’s nothing without its communication with the other activities or materials.

Can you talk about the films for your upcoming show? 

It will consist of eight 16 mm short films that all revolving around our relationship to nature as human beings, specifically with a focus on bird watching and our relation to the birds in various stages. I worked with Bird Banders to create a film, which is about the sensory experience of holding migratory birds when they’ve been mis-netted. The way I’m editing it now will be a series of hands making gestures with birds in them.

In another film I focus on the relationship to nature in the cataloging or creating of data and lists or in the collection of birds as taxidermied pieces or field preservations. All these field preservations are owned by a certain man who relates each one to certain instances in his life. Each instance of a bird’s death relate to the trajectory of the man’s life. The man has collected the birds after their deaths which were mostly caused by lighthouse falls. There was a time when lighthouses would generate a certain attraction from birds and they would fly into them and die. As a teenager, the man in the film collected these birds after the occurences.

Does the film pertain to your own experiences?

It pertains to my experiences, but the variety of works in the exhibition revolve around the same topics I described earlier, our relation to nature through experiences with nature. However, I use different approaches to this topic. Two of the films follow the annual tradition in my family of venturing out on January 1st to get new birds on our list. The first day of the year is important for this because you’re essentially at a blank page, so the tradition is to go out fairly early and do a bird race to see how many species one can observe on that day. The work is related to that because I grew up on intense bird watching. My mother is and always will be a very intense bird watcher. She started bird watching when she was a young teenager.

Bird watching seems like a calm observatory practice, it’s funny you refer to it as ‘intense’ can you elaborate on that?

Yeah, she’s avid but there’s also an intensity to her practice. I recall her jumping out of a moving car in Spain one time just because she had seen a Catalan Hubara. So, intense like those experiences, head over heels for that.

You suggested you’re making work that considers how you’re recreating nature but failing at it, can you speak about this?

I think this is something that comes from one of the films which follows a scientist studying magnetic declination. He is essentially creating artificial magnetic fields to see whether birds are able to deviate their course to magnetic north even though they’re in the magnetic field. The scientist is arguing that birds are equally using a star map as much as they are using magnetic sensing. Many people argue that birds are able to switch between different modes of sensing depending on what situation they are in. For example, if it’s overcast and they can’t see the clouds and are migrating they might be relying on a different sense.

Where did the concept of following this scientist come from?

For that film I was able to go to the scientist’s island and help him make his research for two weeks. I went to a tiny island in the Baltic and worked with him. I was hired by him and paid in free lodging and food, to help him carry his equipment for his research. It was a lot of equipment. What struck me was how he was performing science in an artful way. What he’s making was so fantastic in terms of the sculptural components because he’s placing animals inside them. He doesn’t see it that way, but I had pleasure from seeing those things.

At the same time that sort of sentiment is something I am taking with me into my current work. In the films, sculptural work, and drawings there is the aspiration for intellectually understanding a bird. Though the scientist is using science in data collection he will ultimately

fall short every time in terms of the form of knowledge he’s interested in. There has to be another way of understanding nature outside of these forms of knowledge. I guess it’s a positivistic way of thinking about knowledge and data however, he won’t ever necessarily be able to sense the way that the bird actually experience the world.

It’s interesting because it’s almost as if you’re trying to get into the subjectivity of the bird, nature already makes itself but then we try to recreate it.

Yeah, I guess it’s like I’m doing a cheap knock off on nature in a way. It’s not mimetic in that way but I’m trying to think and see differently than I normally do. It’s also about play in the ideas and the materials for me.

There’s definitely whimsy and comedy to your work.

I think that’s always part of my work. In Parfyme humour was a tool we used, and it has carried through in my current body of work. I find that there is the lighthearted side to humor but there’s so much content in humor, about the essence of life in many ways.

How does time play a role in the work you’re making?

How we experience time is an important factor in thinking about how a bird experiences time. For me it’s interesting to think about the migratory time for a bird which migrates from south of the Sahara to northern Scandinavia, I’m interested in what time feels like for those birds. How do they experience the world through which they are travelling? It’s not something I have an answer to though there are lots of theories for it, both in biology and philosophy, but my verdict is still out.

Your work seems to stand at the crossroads of art, science, and philosophy can you elaborate on this idea?

The reason I’m making art is not necessarily because I have something grand to say but because there’s something I’m interested in trying to understand. It’s important for me to illustrate that we are nature, that we aren’t different than nature. Maybe that is pretty grand, or at least it is fundamental for the thinking of the essence of being.

The nest I’m currently building is also an attempt to channel those animalistic things in me that have been sugar coated with all my culturedness.

Your interest leads you to investigation through scientific means but also through your own subjectivity, is this important to the work?

I haven’t really thought about whether my subjectivity in the work is important, but I can’t deny that it’s there in my attempt of understanding. It’s an attempt at understanding something I don’t know if I am capable of understanding, but I am trying to approach it from as many different angles as possible which also leaves me confused a lot, but I guess I also enjoy confusion.

How has your experience in the US affected your artmaking? Why are you here creating work that is mostly about Denmark?

I don’t think I could make the work in Denmark. The work isn’t about Denmark as a nation or a people, but I feel that I have to be removed from it in order to be able to make this work.

If I were living and being in the field all the time, then I would go ‘native’ I’d be consumed by it everydayness of “hygge” and what not. I need the distance to be able to really think about what the work means and to have a freshness in the way I think about it. The distance is important. I took steps towards making this work here, trying to work with biology departments and bird banders here but in the end my contacts in Denmark proved to be more reliable.