[Translated from Dutch]
In the summer of 2021, Kunstfort bij Vijfhuizen presents a new project by Danielle van Ark. In her work Danielle questions the system of the art world; a system where at the same time she is also a part of and highly dependent on. Value, accessibility, authenticity and visibility of art and artists are important themes in her work. Recently Danielle received a lot of attention for her project ‘Bills’. Shortly after the pandemic, when a large part of her income and projects came to a halt, she started making collages and drawings on the bills that kept flowing in. She put them on sale on her Instagram account, where they could be purchased on a first-come-first-serve basis, at a price corresponding to the billing amount. What started as a playful action to make her precarious situation visible, became a successful and widely embraced project. Zippora Elders and Masha van Vliet of the Kunstfort talked to Danielle via Zoom. You can listen to the conversation (in Dutch) on Soundcloud.
MvV: It has been a while since you started making the Bills. You have stopped selling them on Instagram. Can you take us back to how the project came about?
DvA: “They came about impulsively, but now that I look back on them, they actually flow very logically from something I have been doing for a long time. For years I have been making drawings and collages on press releases that I take from galleries. Press texts amaze me; sometimes they are very informative, but often you can’t make any sense out of them. By drawing on these copied A4-sheets, I piss on these texts.
One night I was working in my studio. The lockdown had just started and I was worried. Could I earn enough as an artist to make ends meet? When I received a hefty internet bill, which I pay every six months, something snapped in me. I printed out the invoice, drew on it and posted it on Instagram and Facebook. Within a minute I received a response from someone who wanted to buy it. It was someone I knew well, who is from the Rijksakademie and who has a great art collection. It felt good that she bought it. I decided to share more bills, an article about it appeared in the Dutch newspaper NRC and from then on it became a hit. People even started setting alerts on Instagram. I did not even know that you could do this!”
MvV: The amounts for your work normally start around 800 EURO. Now people could buy a work for way less, even 25 EURO. Weren’t you afraid that it would affect the value of your work, or that people would take advantage of it?
DvA: “Oh, yes, at some point I was afraid that my work would end up on Catawiki! This is why I started making contracts, claiming that the works could not be resold for the first ten years and not on the internet. The price I set for my work is usually higher but who will buy it when nobody sees it and there are no fairs or exhibitions? In my work, I often raise questions about the value of art and for whom art is accessible and for whom it is not. Why does a particular work of art cost so much and why does it have a certain amount of editions? Why is art only accessible for people with money? I have a dualistic position in this myself. I want my work to be worth a lot of money, on the other hand, I want people who appreciate my work but can’t afford it to be able to have it. Almost anyone could buy the Bills. There was only a limited supply, because – and luckily – I do not have bills every day.”
ZE: What did your gallery, Tegenboschvanvreden, think of the project?
DvA: “(laughs) I’m pretty impulsive, so I just posted them online without discussing this with my gallery. We never really went into detail about it afterwards either, but I think they are proud of what I did. It has brought a lot of visibility for them too. Yet, I can also imagine that they are concerned about what effect this will have on the market value of my work. That is something I also question myself.”
ZE: You come from a DIY culture, a subculture that tries to escape the normative structures and offers alternatives to a monetary economy. At the same time, you also venture into the commercial side of the art world and make use of it. How do you keep your punk in a very capitalist system?
DvA; “The line between the activist and commercial side of my work is very thin. It plays an important role in how I position myself as an artist. I do not feel at home in the gallery world at all but I do find it important that people see and buy my work. In some way, we have to relate to that commercial art world. At the same time, I also try to work around the capitalist system. At the moment I’m raising a platform where artists can share their expertise with others. By doing so we help each other to move forward. It is, kind of, a sharing economy. All artists involved have shows at major galleries in the US. Yet, they are keen to join because we all have a background in the underground music scene, and there a strong sense of community is the normal. Now the art world also develops this sense of community culture.”
ZE: You teach at the photography department of the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague. Do you notice – also in the light of recent developments at art academies – that a change is taking place in how a new generation of artists positions themselves in the art world?
DvA: “Well, the idea that you need museums and galleries to make it in the art world is still prevalent at the academy. But there are more and more students who think: we will arrange it ourselves, we will find our own ways to be visible. Those kids are verbally super strong and are much less guided by the established paths. It strikes me that more and more young artists are starting a collective, and continue to do so after the academy. Together they can achieve so much more. Since all places have closed, for such a long time due to COVID-19, at which these young artists usually exhibited, the trend to unite has only become stronger.”
ZE: On the other hand, galleries can also offer protection to artists who are not great entrepreneurs and may not find their way in the capitalist system so easily. Do you also see that people are excluded for that reason?
DvA: “Of course, some know how to profile themselves better than others. And then you can benefit a lot from the representation of a gallery. When it comes to documenting and organising your work, but also in establishing contacts with museums and institutes. Many artists prefer to stay as far away from the business side as possible. The role and thus the power of galleries abroad is even greater than here. Yet I notice that the influence of the galleries has really diminished. How many people step into a gallery nowadays? Art trading is increasingly taking place on the Internet. Look at how these NFT’s are trending in the art world at the moment. It is of course questionable how this will develop in the long term, but it is inevitable that the role of the established institutions is changing. A traditional white cube gallery has become a bit of a cumbersome establishment.”
ZE: How did your students react to your Bills?
DvA: “They loved it. A lot of their practice is taking place online, so this project really appeals to them in that way. I always try to teach my students that if you have time and subject on your side, and you respond to it in an interesting way, everything can become visible. But you have to be willing to work for it.”
ZE: I can also imagine that the Bills triggered a different way of interacting with the public?
DvA: “I have never had so much response to my work as with this project. When I sell a work of 8,000 EURO through the gallery, most of the time I have no idea where it ends up. With the Bills I got all these super nice reactions from people sharing how happy they were with their work. To interact in such a way with the people who buy my work was very special. As an artist you mostly work in solitude. I like that, but sometimes it can also drive you insane. These reactions make you aware of the value of what you do as an artist.”
ZE: At what point in your career did you start making money with art and how did you earn it before that? Or better: start earning a living, I don’t know if making money is the right term.
DvA: “When I graduated from art school, I lived in New York. I worked as an assistant to Dana Lixenberg, but also earned money with commissioned work. I occasionally photographed for the music magazine ‘Wire’, which opened up a lot of possibilities in photography. My income back then was pretty decent, but after a while I was done with photography and applied for the Rijksakademie. In the years during and immediately after the Rijks, things went very well for me, but after a while it was getting more difficult financially. Ironically, at the same time I had a solo exhibition at Foam and my work got a lot of attention, there was no money coming in. Now I have a teaching position at the KABK and I am doing commissioned work once in a while, my income is steady. But that is only since the last two years.”
MvV: The project has been purchased by the ABN AMRO collection, which means that they will pay all the bills that you turn into artworks for a period of a year, between September 2020 and September 2021. Do you approach the project differently for ABN AMRO?
DvA: “Yes, I came up with an idea when I visited their collection depot. I have a thing for depots, those comatose places where objects gather dust, waiting to be seen again one day. When I started for the ABN AMRO they gave me a number of collection catalogues. I started to paste clippings from these catalogues on a number of invoices or draw works from the collection. I also included one of my own works from the collection in a bill. The Bills I made for the ABN will soon be shown as a series while the works depicted on them remain in the depots. I find it interesting that I am in a sense reactivating the objects from the collection.”
ZE: Are you working on any other projects at the moment?
DvA: “There are actually quite some things that I would like to explore further. I just haven’t found the right concentration yet to do so. I spent some time making paintings based on iconic works of art. Especially color field paintings, such as the work of Helen Frankenthaler. I’m actually not a very good painter. Abstract work is the easiest to copy (laughs). I fold the canvases so you can’t see them as a whole.
I find it fascinating that painting is still the most expensive medium on the art market. It still has the highest status. I do not think an installation has ever been sold for 80 million. Why is the art market so traditional, while at the same time art moves in so many other directions?
Auction and collection catalogues are also a recurring theme in my work. Recently someone gave me a delivery van full of old Christie’s catalogues. Super fascinating to browse through all those volumes. You often see private collections of deceased collectors being auctioned. I think there is something sad about it: someone has been collecting for a lifetime and then overnight the whole collection falls apart. Also, while looking at all those catalogues, I came to the conclusion that the entire art market revolves around no more than a hundred artists: Christopher Wool, Damien Hirst, Imi Knoebel for example. It actually shows that the canon of Christie’s and Sotheby’s is very limited. I started painting on the pages of these catalogues, turning the depicted art pieces into new works.”
ZE: Would you say you are fascinated with the dark side of things? The dark side of the moon?
DvA: “Someone recently said to me, “you are always so fascinated by money”. That is not entirely true. I am interested in the dark side of money, power or status. The expression “What comes up must come down” is true in most cases. Almost everybody who goes sky high also hits rock bottom, because they are getting older or because they made an unforgivable mistake. This dark shadow always hangs above the art world. My work is perhaps in some way driven by the realisation that this will also happen to me at some point.”