Up and Coming: Why Artist Mario Pfeifer’s Method Might Just Change the World
New York-based hip hop trio the Flatbush ZOMBiES’ music video for “Blacktivist” has 2.5 million YouTube views. In it, a likeness of President Obama kneels in front of the ZOMBiES (who stand in front of a mash-up between the Confederate flag and that of ISIS) with a bag over his head, prepped for decapitation; Defense Distributed-designed guns are plucked out of 3D printers by potentially felonious hands; Robert Downey Jr. dons blackface in Tropic Thunder; and Eric Garner meets his death at the hands of the NYPD. “Blacktivist” is likely the most widely viewed piece of video art in history. That’s because while the music and lyrics are by the Flatbush ZOMBiES, the video is the work of German multidisciplinary artist Mario Pfeifer.
The 34-year-old Pfeifer lives between New York and Berlin, when he’s not on various research trips and residencies that form the source material for the majority of his recent work. He collaborated with the ZOMBiES—Erick Arc Elliott, Meechy Darko, and Zombie Juice—over a period of six months on #blacktivist (2015), the title of the two-channel version of the video he created with producer Drew Arnold, in an edition of 10. The piece premiered last September at the Goethe-Institut’s New York space, Ludlow 38—and on YouTube. It has since cropped up at The Armory Show, is on view at this week’s Art Cologne, and will be show at Berlin’s ACUD this summer. It furthers his practice, which melds ethnographic research, a documentary aesthetic, internet mash-ups, and critical editing for pieces that serve up powerful truths about society without commenting directly on any of their subject matter.
“All of the projects that I’ve realized in the last seven years grew out of a cultural, geographic location. I need the location to be able to start working,” says Pfeifer, who is currently in Brazil working on his next film. “Blacktivist came out of my desire to work with rap musicians. And the most natural way to work with rap musicians is to produce music. Since I’m a video producer I can only produce visuals.”
Pfeifer is very specific about what he can and can’t, will and will not do. It’s a specificity that comes out of his role as a “medium” for his subjects, open to being molded by and transmitting their ideas but also subject to his own limitations and constraints. Those subjects include the Flatbush ZOMBiES; the indigenous people of Tierra del Fuego, the southernmost place on the South American continent, where he filmed Approximation in the digital age to a humanity condemned to disappear (2014); or the number of religious leaders with whom he’s currently collaborating in and around São Paulo for Corpo Fechado, which will premiere in September of this year at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Leipzig.
“I'm an artist who has certain skills, and who has certain opportunities to realize things that they would never think of,” says Pfeifer of his current subjects in Brazil, which range from crystal healer Cristovão Brilho, who the artist says treats over 22,000 people a month, to practitioners of relatively unknown religions like Candomblé and Umbanda. “Most of these people are not visual thinkers; they are religious practitioners. They are leaders for their communities. I keep 100% control of the visualization of their ideas. What I need is their trust that they give me the source material.”
For #blacktivist the source material was an mp3, itself born out of several months of conversation. “One of the first things Erick Arc Elliott told me when we sat down was, ‘You know what? I'm black. I live in New York. I feel oppressed, that’s how I feel. I mean, people can disagree but this is how I personally feel so I want to make this visible,’” recalls Pfeifer, who at the time hadn’t heard a cut of the track that would become “Blacktivist.” “When I got the song and the lyrics,” at the time an untitled file, “I was blown away. It was much more than I expected.” The collaboration was seamless. Hearing the song’s opening line, Black activist on activist, Pfeifer offered, “You say ‘black activist.’ That’s a ‘blacktivist.’ The next file I got: blacktivist.mp3.”
All those who participate in Pfeifer’s films receive an honorarium or artist fee of some sort. For #blacktivist, the artist produced 1,100 copies of the EP, 900 of which went to the Flatbush ZOMBiES free of charge. This, and the video itself (which has been posted on numerous music and culture sites, from Hypebeast to Complex, and endlessly annotated on Genius) opened up Pfeifer’s work to a whole new audience.
“There’s still a segregation between popular art and, say, elitist, high art,” explains Pfeifer. “Music expands my audience and it expands the audience for the project, for the artwork. If somebody buys “Blacktivist,” they will link it to the video because of the cover, and they buy an artwork that is also just music.” The same goes for Approximation; its soundtrack was composed by New York-based Kamran Sadeghi and is also available as an LP. “Now I have Artforum and I have YouTube,” jokes Pfeifer.
Corpo Fechado will be split into 10 episodes, each one focusing on a different aspect of religious or spiritual practice in Brazil. Music will play a role, both in its ceremonial use by the various practitioners and as a thread which ties together the episodes. But the core of Pfeifer’s value proposition to his Brazilian subjects is to expose these religious and spiritual leaders to the wider world through the episodes themselves. “Speak through me and I will give you a global audience,” as he puts it, in what itself sounds like fairly biblical phrasing.
Religion is as varied as it is omnipresent in Brazilian daily life. “It directly links to the history of the country,” says Pfeifer of the variety of practices he’s encountered. “It’s a former Portuguese colony, so the Catholic church has been predominant. They brought slaves in from West African countries, mostly Benin, and that was the source of Candomblé, a religion that only exists in Brazil.” Though Candomblé was only officially recognized by the state in 1989, it remains marginalized, a hallmark of the still-pervasive racial tensions in the country. “Umbanda,” another religion that factors prominently in Corpo Fechado, “is close to Candomblé but it’s influenced by Spiritism, which is a post-Christian, science-oriented religious movement that comes from France. It uses Afro-religious instruments, it has rituals, but nowadays the majority of people who practice Umbanda are white people.”
Pfeifer’s approach as a medium has won him unprecedented access to many of the individuals with which he has worked on the film. No matter their beliefs or practices, “I take everything they say as valid. It might not be true. That’s a big difference,” says Pfeifer. “I’m an atheist so my relationship to religion is very analytical. I’m reflective enough not to follow them blindly. When they ask me what I believe in, I say I believe in art because you know, as an artist you need to believe in what you do,” he adds, laughing. “Art has a function in society and religion also might have one,” he continues. “Religion is necessary for a huge amount of our society to be stable.”
It’s this stabilizing and self-verifying aspect of religion from which Corpo Fechado takes its name. “It means ‘closed body,’” explains Pfeifer. “It’s an element of many religions, but is of indigenous origin. You go through a ritual and your body becomes completely resistant against anything, except in each corpo fechado you have one weak point.” (Pfeifer points out that the corpo fechado isn’t singular to Brazil; a similar story forms the core of the German myth The Nibelungenlied.) “It’s an interesting synonym for a society,” says Pfeifer. “A society is functional but there are always weak points that can be attacked and it’s by understanding your own body and your own society that you can protect that weak spot.” (He stops short of saying it, but I’d venture that, in Pfeifer’s eyes, this gained understanding is art’s function.)
Religion, despite its stabilizing effect on society, is one such weak spot. “In many of the rituals I’ve attended, there’s something kind of false in them, from an outsider’s perspective. And that is also very important to show,” says Pfeifer. “Belief is dangerous; you follow somebody and if many people follow one person, that creates a certain energy and creates a certain power relation.” But Pfeifer doesn’t shy from the elements of these practices that seem far-fetched—or dangerous. He leans in to those elements hardest of any.
Case in point is his work with Cristovão Brilho. The former lawyer has offices in Miami, São Paulo, and Rio de Janeiro and uses crystals to cure a variety of ailments. Among other effects, agate “fortifies and strengthens body and mind,” amethyst “strengthens the endocrine and immunological system,” and chrysoprase “reduces neurotic patterns,” according to his website. Brilho claims that he channels energy from an extraterrestrial source that lives in a parallel galaxy 195 billion light-years away. He has no idea what it looks like, however, so Pfeifer has stepped in to help. “I have an idea based partly on scientific research, partly on science-fiction movies, partly on games,” explains the artist. “I’ve used this online game Universe Sandbox where you can create galaxies. I’ve posted a couple of things in their forums, and I’m trying to get a gamer to simulate his galaxy.”
Pfeifer is careful to point out that this close collaboration and earnest presentation of Brilho’s methods is not an endorsement that his methods are or are not functional. “As an artist I would never endorse somebody; endorsements are manipulations,” he says. And, were Corpo Fechado to be comprised of a focus on just one of the religious practitioners, it would also fail. “I look at 10 different things—some of them are very known, some of them are very hidden,” says Pfeifer. “And I build a plural project with many voices.” It’s something like an artistic version of Bahia Imagens, a factory two hours outside of São Paulo: “They produce any kind of object that comes out of a religious practice and distribute it worldwide. They produce a Jesus figure, an Umbanda figure, a Buddha, anything.” Pfeifer’s lens digs past the rows of icons to working conditions and corporatization of religion in the factory.
Pfeifer’s pluralist vision for his work extends to a vision for society at large: “I would wish for a society where every individual can articulate their vision rather than one of 100,000 people endorsing someone to speak for them.” He says this comes out of his having grown up in East Germany, where there was only ever one party for which you could vote. “Everybody had the same schoolbook, everybody had the same pencil, everybody had the same pens. We were a uniformed society, and my family struggled within that society,” he recalls. “I was only eight years old when the wall came down, but I understood, okay, we had one world and now we have another world. What possibilities are available in this new world? And that was to speak what you think.”
After his five months of production for Corpo Fechado are through, he’ll return to Germany to work on one final film for the Leipzig show. It’s the first time Pfeifer will work in his home country in 10 years. And the subject in question is perhaps his most fraught and personal as well: the far-right movement Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West, which is better known via its acronym, PEGIDA. “PEGIDA started in my hometown,” says Pfeifer. “You have these people going on the street trying to protect Christian values even though they’re not religious. They’re trying to protect the German patrimony by being racist and anti-Muslim.” The great irony, Pfeifer points out, is that only around 0.1% of the apparently dangerously Islamized state of Saxony, of which Dresden is the capital, is actually Muslim.
“I think I can make things visible about them that mainstream media cannot. That’s my aim,” says Pfeifer. He is hopeful about the outcome of such a project, which necessitates a departure from his practice of being an open and accepting medium to his subjects’ ideas. He thinks that the PEGIDA members he will attempt to speak with won’t, in the end, be able to support their stance: “They don’t have the facts or the realities to argue their case.” That breakdown, might help cure his hometown and Europe at large from the surging momentum of the far-right. “They have to speak,” says Pfeifer, “because one big problem of this movement is that they have an extreme anger, so they do not talk to anybody; they only talk to themselves.”
The attempt is significant and reveals something larger about Pfeifer’s practice and our current moment. The media landscape has siloed off audiences into subsets that listen to select voices bouncing around in ever-loudening echo chambers. The potentially dangerous sides of religious ideologies as well as bigotry and violence fester exponentially in such environments. Pfeifer, meanwhile, enters these many silos and turns on a floodlight, a 4K camera, and a microphone, broadcasting the results back at the world. He doesn’t ascribe to one view and he neither locks onto nor judges any singular voice, preferring to regain lost trust and re-engage communities, ideally before they might slip into a more radical form. “I’m happy to listen to people but I will not listen to only one person,” says Pfeifer. The results speak for themselves.