interviews
Interview
Visual arts

Thomas Mailaender & Erik Kessels

We live in a society which is almost a Renaissance of imagery. We’re bombarded with images and this does something to us, we have become a species of editors.

Thomas Mailaender is a French multi-media artist and Erik Kessels is a Dutch artist, designer and creative partner of communications agency KesselsKramer. Both are compulsive collectors of photographs and keen observers of sociological patterns, including those deemed absurd. They created the project “Play Public” for the Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival 2021, in Toronto.

Updated on 24/06/2021

2 min

Image
Thomas Maïlaender & Erik Kessels
Crédits
Thomas Maïlaender & Erik Kessels © DR

You are both known for re-appropriating and re-contextualising photographs. Were you familiar with each other’s work before this project?

Erik: We met each other more professionally initially. Caroline Nimon, an editor of a magazine, introduced us about 10 years ago. 

Thomas: We’ve done commercial work together for 5 years now. Erik would do projects for brands and I’d collaborate with him. We did some work for Standard Hotels, a chain in the United States, and it was a great adventure to work on an arty commercial project like that. Step by step we started to collaborate together and now I think we really share an interest and want to do projects together. When I met Erik he was a bigger collector than me. He was doing great books but he hadn’t yet developed a practice where he would show his collection in a different way. Later he developed that as an industry and now he’s showing everywhere in the world.

 

Where do you find inspiration for your work?

Erik: We live in a society which is almost a Renaissance of imagery. We’re bombarded with images and this does something to us, we have become a species of editors. We really have to decide what to keep and what to throw away. In a way we also look on the fringes of this great highway of images. There are of course clichés, but we always look in the dirty side streets, in the gutter, because there is always something going on. Also, the internet has become an enormous source of people that copy each other. For us that’s nice because we look at the ridiculousness of it sometimes.

Thomas: In another direction we are very nostalgic I guess. We sometimes go together to flea-markets and really dig for stuff. Erik has an important collection of maybe 60 000 photo albums. I also hunt for that type of artefact, the kind of thing that will totally disappear in the future, like negatives. I think it’s important to say we’re not nostalgic in the way we show it. When we create an exhibition of these things that’s the act of re-appropriation. We take it from its original context and put it in a new context by enlarging it or putting it in strange surroundings or reworking it.

We were doing an exhibition that is meant to be interactive, people are meant to interact with the photographs, and we were doing it via zoom and we won’t get to see the exhibition.

Your project for the CONTACT Photography Festival focuses on societal and cultural norms and how they can be subverted by play. For inspiration you used the photographic archives of Toronto’s Canadian National Exhibition. Can you explain the significance of the exhibition and how it informed the installation design?

Thomas: It’s a huge place right in the centre of Toronto and I think every tourist or citizen would go with their family and spend time there. For them it’s like Proust’s madeleines, it evokes nostalgic feelings. The idea came from Bonnie Rubenstein, Artistic Director of Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival. She knows our work and how we are attracted to archives. She came to us with this great commission and said ‘OK guys, we have access to this fantastic archive. Would you be interested to dig in and come up with an idea?’

Erik: It started with the fact that we had access to that archive. It’s an old archive from 1876 or something. Both of us looked at the archive and took out what we thought was interesting. There was also an opportunity to do something outdoors in the same area where this fair had been before. In the images there are people on rollercoasters, competitions on who has the best cat, strange motorcycle exercises, there’s a woman frozen in ice, it’s a bit like a freak show. To bring that outdoors the idea was to make a trail run with obstacles and bars to hold on to, swing from and jump over. We used that as a foundation to show the images and sometimes the images interact a bit; the woman frozen in ice is lying on the floor and the rollercoaster images are high in the air. We played a little with that. The idea is that it can be exercise for your body and exercise for your eyes. 

 

The pandemic made it impossible for you to travel to Toronto so you had to create the project together from afar. How did you make this work?

Erik: When you work at a distance you need to build the whole thing.  Everything needs to be prefabricated and measured.

Thomas: Via zoom, the most boring thing that has been invented during COVID. We were doing an exhibition that is meant to be interactive, people are meant to interact with the photographs, and we were doing it via zoom and we won’t get to see the exhibition. For us it was horrible. It’s really not a good way to work, but we had no choice.

People will jump on things, exercise on things, skaters will go in there. It invites people to play with it.

Did your awareness of the way in which public behaviour and attitudes have been affected by the pandemic influence the design of the installation?

Thomas: At some point they wanted us to avoid bars because people can touch them and spread the virus but we said, ‘OK, just say to the people not to touch the bars if you like.’ It didn’t really change the design. 

 

How do you hope the public will respond to it?

Erik: People will jump on things, exercise on things, skaters will go in there. It invites people to play with it. By doing it in that spot it was almost as if there were remains or ruins of the fair that was once there. That’s another layer in there.

Thomas: The place is located right by a kindergarten and the place is also where children come often. Our hope is that people will use the exhibition to rest or gather to have lunch there. It should be a place where people interact and use the exhibition because usually when you create an exhibition all those things are forbidden, you cannot eat or play, and in this one we hope it will be more open to that kind of stuff. 

 

Did you find advantages to working in this way or would you always prefer to collaborate in person and on site in future?

Erik: We are used to working from a distance sometimes, Thomas is in Marseille and I am in Amsterdam, but that is for the more functional stuff. You can’t do the tactile stuff from a distance – in this case visiting the archive or getting a feel for the space. Maybe we would have liked to have sound with that installation or something like that. From a distance that’s all very difficult to arrange.

Thomas: We would have made a better exhibition without COVID for sure. It will be a great exhibition, but if we could have gone into the archive it would have been a fantastic exhibition. 

The Institut français and the project

Thomas Mailaender & Erik Kessels presents "Play Pubic" at the Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival in Toronto from 17 June to 26 September 2021.

The project is supported by the Institut français as part of the Relance Export 2021 programme. Relance Export aims to support French artists or artists living in France, from the cultural and creative fields, whose international projects have been impacted by the sanitary crisis, and who have the opportunity to continue or develop these activities identically, or with a new approach.

Find out more about Relance Export 

L'institut français, LAB