My work is mostly the result of different well-made failures
After a small delay, we met with music video director Michiel Venmans – also known as Leichim Mansven or The Bathing Director– in Brussels to visit the immersive audiovisual installation of Austrian artist Kurt Hentschläger and speak about art while enjoying a nice sunny afternoon next to the canal.
How are you doing?
I’m good. I’ve had a very busy week last week, I was in Ghent for three days to make a portrait for an art festival in Rotterdam about an encounter between Spinvis and Meskerem Mees, who were going for a walk through the city while talking about what we will also be talking about today: things, and music. They wrote a cute song together about an egg of a Meerkoet they saw on their walk. I was there for staging, to make it seem like it was a nice walk [winks]. I am a very big fan of theirs, so it was amazing to meet them. I’m rather lazy, ambitiously lazy, so I admire people who seek experiences that I do not dare to, or for which I am too lazy. Often, musicians do that.
Is that why you started making music videos?
I started making music videos while doing my masters at RITCS. During your film studies, they hammer the thought in your mind that your final short film is extremely important. I figured, what if this short movie doesn’t go anywhere or if I am not happy with it, what would I like to make instead? I started making music videos to release this pressure and to gain confidence in what my taste may be, to learn what working methods suit me best. I find music videos an ideal medium to create a fantasy world with interesting people in a short period of time.
I made a long list of all artists that I like or that I think I can contribute something to. I sent them all an email to introduce myself and my film style. Eventually, the manager of Blackwave reacted and I made a first video for them, which was a really good collaboration. I don’t remember what followed, but that got the ball rolling. I’ve crossed a lot of names from my list since then.
I am not a confrontational person, but when there is a screen between me and the public, I feel like I know how to handle them
Still, I would like to see what happens to my short film. Because of the pandemic, there are no festivals now, my movie didn’t have a public yet. I would like to see how the public will react. I am not a confrontational person, but when there is a screen between me and the public, I feel like I know how to handle them.
And The Bathing Director, was he created around the same time?
No, that has a very old origin story. It started around the beginning of Instagram. I had a girlfriend in high school, she always wanted to take photos of us to show how happy we were together. She told me that I had to post those photos too [Laughs]. I didn’t like it, so as a counter-reaction I consequently started recording videos of myself in the bath, without saying anything. I enjoyed being naughty in a secure way.
This character in the bath, The Bathing Director, is actually Leichim Mansven, Michiel Venmans with some letters shifted. The myth I created in this respect is that Michiel Venmans actually doesn’t exist. Leichim Mansven, the man in the bath, exists, and he invented Michiel Venmans as some kind of alter ego. It seemed nice to me to invent that my alter ego created the real person. Both are constantly fighting with each other, they deny each other’s existence. At the same time, they work together; for example, Leichim Mansven operates the camera for a project of Michiel Venmans. Often, people don’t understand. Maybe they’ll understand now.
Maybe! So, about the exhibition. We entered into complete darkness, which every once in a while got lit up by abstract forms on a big screen in the room. Kurt Hentschläger wanted to play with the visitors' feelings: a transformation from distress into meditation. How did you experience it?
I liked being there. I go to museums a lot and I’m always the person who needs an audio guide in order to be interested. I find the medium of film much nicer because the context is super clear. I really enjoyed the installation because since we couldn’t see anything, it was almost like being in the cinema. It reminded me of a friend, who said that if you rub your eyes for a long time, what you see is your imagination. Inside the exhibition, I had the same feeling. If the light shone or flickered, the image remains on your retina and I liked that. I enjoyed being there with the other visitors and sensing how they tried to show that they were around to prevent you from colliding with them.
How did you like that social aspect of the installation, interacting with – or rather, trying not to bump into – visitors you can’t see?
This is an expo you need to share with someone. When I entered with you and Sepideh, I didn’t know when you would decide to leave the space, which made me wonder when would be a good moment to leave myself. There is some tension, some stress about losing your company in the dark. Even though you can’t see the other visitors, social codes still apply. Very interesting.
Besides, it would a good expo to visit on a date. You are both submerged in this experience, suddenly left alone in a pitch-black space in which you have to find your way, with people you both don’t know. It could be a unique experience, especially since you also don’t know each other that well yet. You’re getting to know someone without being able to see each other, let alone to guess what each other’s thoughts or feelings might be. That’s exciting, and a big contrast to walking in the woods or in a park, things we all do during these strange times. However, this might not be how the artist meant his art to be experienced since he wanted to create an individual trip or some special accordance between the visitor and the light.
Could this audiovisual work be inspirational for your own work?
When I started studying at the RITCS I was about 18 years old and I had the feeling that I didn’t have much to say to the world. A lot of my first movies are therefore based on stories that I like. There is one writer, Julio Cortázar, who wrote incredible stories that I started filming. I find it difficult to take inspiration from non-human things, like architecture, technology, or, in this case, an installation. But I did get inspired by the people around me in iMAL; I’m triggered by the idea that they can see you in a flash and I can pose in any manner I want to upset them.
I get inspired by the people around me in iMAL; I’m triggered by the idea that they can see you in a flash and I can pose in any manner I want to upset them
Do you think you’ll ever make an artwork as immersive and unsettling as Hentschlägers installation?
I am not so much a sensory artist like Kurt Hentschläger. I tried a few times to make something meditative, but I couldn’t do it. I am someone who needs to be stimulated by what I see and hear. I am not searching to give my public any other experience than something they can experience from the comfort of their own chair. I find it pleasant to know that my viewers don’t have to move too much to be able to see something on their screen.
If you could describe your work, how would you do that?
My personal style is ‘blueish’, a little grey, not too much artificial light, not too much planned out. If I’m happy with a music video it’s mostly the result of different well-made failures and mistakes instead of a good plan.
I am not really a planner and I like small crews. When there are too many people I feel a limitation in my playfulness and freedom. I like to pick up my camera, go to a location and see what happens there or invent something. That’s what I did while making my short film. However, that story was about twenty children from the choir. With a half-finished script and the idea to think something up on the spot, it was obviously difficult with twenty children running around.
If I’m happy with a music video it’s mostly the result of different well-made failures and mistakes instead of a goodbye plan
That is the contradiction in me. I want to make images or create stories that are not so easy to tell with a small crew. I bring myself and mostly the people of production into trouble because they have to work with a half-finished plan, some nice ideas, and me saying, ‘Let’s do that, it’s nice, let’s shoot there, it’s nice.’
And if you could describe yourself?
I’m a shy guy who imagined being extroverted, and eventually became so but in a more restless way. Does that sound beautiful? I can make something else up if you want to. What I find incredibly annoying is to do groceries. In an ideal world, someone would deliver them to my home. To demonstrate that… [Thinks] I don’t know what I want to demonstrate.
To demonstrate how lazy you are?
I wanted to say that, but then I talk about being lazy too much, people will think I am actually really lazy and I don’t want them to know the truth. I like to work hard in order to be able to be lazy after. I also like being a little dishonest. I find it tiring to always be honest: I think you should be honest to the people close to you, but imagination and fantasy are very much undervalued.