A London-Based Art/Design Collective Creates David Simon’s Baltimore in the South of France: An Interview by Joseph del Pesco

åbäke (a Swedish word meaning “something in the way, something clumsy”) is a hybrid art/design collective based in London. The four members: Patrik Lacey, Benjamin Reichen, Kajsa Stahl and Maki Suzuki, have been working together since 2000. Originally from Wales, France and Sweden, åbäke have founded the publishing house Dent-De-Leone, co-founded a record label called Kitsuné, the publication series Drawing Room Confessions and have developed projects for art museums and art centers internationally.

Joseph del Pesco conducted this interview via email with åbäke, in March of 2018.

Joseph del Pesco: I think memory and places are related, even if it’s a place you haven’t been (yet)—ideas about it are formed in advance. People tend to remember where-they-were when historic events were taking place. THE WIRE is arguably one of the best television shows ever made, and it’s been watched world-wide. Where were you, and what was happening with åbäke during the time you were watching THE WIRE?

åbäke: You are right. I do remember exactly when, for example, 9/11 happened, and everything we did until 4am the next day. Interestingly it is much more difficult to remember what happened while watching THE WIRE because it had the reverse effect, of erasing anything else.

We have all experienced DVD binge-watching, but we only ever did this for THE WIRE. I perfectly remember making the decision to watch yet another episode instead of working, which was our favourite thing to do in life. The superlatives have been exhausted about this masterpiece but I would say that we place Art above anything, knowing perfectly that it exists in all places and that the Art World doesn’t own Art, far from it. David Simon may not be an artist but his creation is without doubt a masterful artwork. Watching it made us feel inside Art and this is why we cannot recall anything else. It did suffice.

THE WIRE ran from 2002 to 2008, had five seasons and 60 episodes. Each season features a different city institution, connecting it along the way to law enforcement and the drug trade. It seems that season three, which ran in 2004, about the city government and bureaucracy captured your interest. Especially the character of Councilman Tommy Carcetti. Was it the character, the actor, or the office that was your key point of fascination? 

Our favourite season is the education system but you are right that Carcetti has captured our interest as much as a lot of the characters in the series. Your question points exactly at what fascinates us: fiction in reality and reality as fiction.

A few years ago, we performed “Charlotte Sera Presents,” based on a story from a friend we knew as students. She told us the most incredible story about when she was a babysitter and then, years later, decided to come back to Art after having lived as a prostitute in Vegas. People in the audience were somewhat confused by the similarities of our story to the plots of Adventures in Babysitting, directed by Chris Columbus (1987) and Leaving Las Vegas, directed by Mike Figgis (1995). Our interest was to link those two movies, as two parts of a trilogy for which we would come up with what ultimately happened to a promising high school aged babysitter in 1987 (played by Elisabeth Shue) and then almost ten years later, becomes a prostitute (also Elisabeth Shue) in 1995.

Tommy Carcetti is a complex politician, both brilliant and repulsive. When the series ended we screamed and cried but as artists and fans we realised we could easily continue his career. Tommy runs for governor at the end of the series so it was just a logical step to campaign for his presidency. You should also know that since we lived in London for ages we are familiar with the actor Aidan Gillen who plays Carcetti, and is Irish. As an aside it is rather incredible that Carcetti, McNulty and Stringer Bell are actually from the United Kingdom.

I’ve recently returned to an essay called John Waters Versus The Wire, by Mark Alice Durant (from his book 27 Contexts, published 2016). He was living here during the run of The Wire (still does), and writes about the power of narrative to seep into the lives of Baltimoreans—the blur between fiction and reality—when he ran into Kima Greggs (played by Sonja Sohn) outside the Baltimore School for the Arts. Her daughter was a student, and Mark’s wife was a teacher at the school. He spotted her on the street, and writes, “I knew her but had forgotten how.” He describes feeling an “unresolved emotional bond” and that they “must have been intimate long ago, in some other city.” Eventually he re-synched, internally, and describes the uncanny experience of not being able to distinguish between his personal memory and something he’d seen on screen.

As you may know, the script flipped again, when Sohn directed the Baltimore Rising Documentary, and before that started an NGO called ReWired for Change, two initiatives invested in portraying and supporting the same local communities that were the subject of THE WIRE, and taking a more active role in the non-fiction narrative. According the what I’ve read, she set aside acting to reach past representation into the real. Some see her as a fictional character, others as a community leader. She exists on both sides of the horizon. 

Mm, we should perhaps change “Carcetti President” to “Kima for President,” which reminds me of yet another poster we made a few years ago about the typographer Excoffon for a group show. We decided to use an iconic and very French typeface used to promote our nomination for President, someone called Zinedine—a reference to how racist we French people are yet celebrate and admire Zidane. A friend of ours pasted those posters up last year in what can only be the best context for the work.

I’m very curious about the different ways that Åbäke participates in the productive confusion between the fictive and real. For example, installing a highway sign with Welcome to Baltimore City sign in the South of France, in reference to THE WIRE, but also related to a piece by Philippe Parreno who had twenty years prior, installed a Welcome to Twin Peaks sign in the same spot. During our initial correspondence, you mentioned moving from the passive position of fans into a more active role? 

In 2012 we were invited to a residency at Villa Arson, in Nice. For us, as well as many people, the place is mythical because of its history, being the last Malraux project and a very singular piece of Architecture, the former (and radical) Director Christian Bernard, and a place where people like Martin Kippenberger did a lot of things both in the National Contemporary Art Centre and the Art School.
The early 90s were particularly vibrant and are perhaps considered the golden age of the place by slightly over-nostalgic people. We weren’t there then but are perhaps nostalgic of a time and place we never experienced.

Anyhow, Eric Mangion, the current director of the Art Centre approved our proposal that we would work with EVERYBODY there and contextually construct work from meeting the people and history of the place. It was then inevitable to (re)discover some important exhibitions such as “No Man’s Time.” In this exhibition, we were drawn to a piece by Philippe Parreno which had become part of our own cultural memory twice: as the town sign for Twin Peaks the TV series we had watched as teenagers and the sculpture by Parreno we got to know through catalogues while studying in the late 90s. We were fans of the David Lynch TV series, of course (remember that in 2012, a third season was still just a conspirationist’s wet dream), but we decided to comment on the progress in popular culture. Twin Peaks, with its iconic everything and idiosyncratic characters had, in our minds, been replaced by THE WIRE. The main difference being that while the town sign from Twin Peaks was truly iconic, there wasn’t anything from THE WIRE that could so easily be made into a visual catchphrase.

We then opted for a city sign found on the internet and worked (as Parreno did) with a student in painting (documenting the process by asking the student to pose in the same way Philippe Mayaux was photographed twenty years earlier).

The gesture was both a reference to an Art piece and our pure love for a popular masterpiece. It is the gesture of a fan, a sculptural fan fiction, and the next move became logical, we had to help Carcetti go beyond the TV series by campaigning for his election.

To be frank, we are not delusional. We were all rather for Barack Obama again in 2012, we are aware of how slim the chances are that Tommy gets in the White House, especially considering he is fictional. Delusional we are not, yet, campaigning every four years for him (2016 against Trump felt rather good) keeps THE WIRE close to us.

As most Baltimorean’s know (I’m a new arrival, so only discovered this recently) Carcetti closely resembles a local politician Martin O’Malley, who was a city councilman, and then mayor during the run of THE WIRE. O’Malley, who had a contentious relationship with the creators of THE WIRE, went on to become governor of Maryland. And in 2016, made a short-lived gambit for President! It’s amazing and kind of thrilling to me that THE WIRE can have multiple readings, deepening with layer upon layer of fiction, ever closer to fact. But seen from afar, it paints one of the most vivid (and perhaps the most available) portraits of the city. What was your first visit to Baltimore like, after watching THE WIRE, and how it was informed by (or not) the series?

Our visit to Baltimore is now a blur, if hazed in joy. We did not know anyone and it was part of a larger trip, we think of it as part of a bigger fictional world into which we physically travelled. Like visiting The Dawn of the Dead shopping mall in Pittsburgh or the Mullholland Drive diner in Gardena, eating the delicious crab in Maryland was for us equivalent to walking down the street of “hamsterdam” in Baltimore with my daughter in a baby bjorn, to distill the fear of real danger and the guilt of feeling so. Passing corners, unsure whether the people there were drug dealers or possibly at the other opposite spectrum; fans of the Wire from Europe—very unlikely—was the closest we could get in our present to construct a nostalgia for a time we never lived. To be very honest the city of Baltimore was less the subject of our crush than what the author (David Simon et al) translated into the mind of the readers and viewers. London or Tokyo can exist in the mind of people who never lived there.

The Stendhal Syndrome is an intriguing one. A friend once witnessed a Japanese person running from the train station to drink water from the Venice canal. We felt very wrong and elated from a form of guilty happiness to be in a place that only has custody in a work of fiction. One of those worst and best places…