[January 26 2021] : art
In Berlin’s Zeiss Major Planetarium and in a parallel VR experience, Berliners Mumi Haiati and Tim Neugebauer have brought together Honey Dijon and Hans Ulrich Obrist; the performance artists Anne Imhof and Eliza Douglas; and pure obsessives like the curator behind famed Helmut Lang archivist ENDYMA. This is all a part of the second annual Reference Festival, a vehicle for unadulterated creative projects detached from commercial motivations and marketing ploys in the city of Berlin. Bringing the energy and ethos of Berlin—arguably the last large Western city where one can still afford to live as an artist today– to a diverse collective of thinkers, designers, dancers, architects and more for a three-day event running through tomorrow night.
One Reference Festival project is a multi-sensory Blue Room with a series of mixes created by Michel Gaubert. It’s a collaboration called EBIT (Enjoy Being in Transition) between Gaubert and Simon Whitehouse, who became obsessed with the New Order track “Blue Monday” at age 17 and looks back at it as the beginning of his OCD. He wore only blue, painted his bedroom blue, and listened to Blue Monday on endless repeat.
The Blue Room, with beautiful immersive visuals created by M/M Paris, arrived in time for “Blue Monday” – said to be the scientifically most depressing day of the year – with a mood boosting hit of House, Post-Punk, R&B, even hints of classical, earlier this week. It’s a subtle, artful (and energizing) way to address and push the conversation around mental health and collective empathy. We spoke with Gaubert and Whitehouse over Zoom on the origins of the project, the types of tracks that breeds obsession, release and joy, and how artistic freedom and human connection converge.
ASHLEY SIMPSON — I hung out in the Blue Room earlier. I loved it. First, can we talk a little bit about the origins and how you came to conceptualize and collaborate around this?
SIMON WHITEHOUSE — It started with this idea for EBIT. I got inspired by this sentence, which is, “the most profitable brands are all directed or will be directed by their moral compass.” I’ve got OCD and it latched onto my OCD and I couldn’t stop thinking about what this sentence meant, how it was written months ago deep into 2020. Fast forward a little bit. Profit. EBIT. Ebit is one of those universal words in every language that means profit. For me, mental health is a really big moral compass. I’ve arrived at a certain point in my life where I just want to be very open and hopefully in an inspiring, very artistic way to provoke dialogue around the subject. And so, EBIT kind of came about in a natural, organic way which was this philosophy of working with different artists who could be free but bring to life through art and progress this narrative around mental health and [bring] solidarity around the subject. A big nostalgic installation for EBIT overall was the days of Factory Records where artistic expression was completely free. It was completely liberated. Where is the true freedom of expression [today]? It’s like a collective. It’s not a super organized thing or anything. It’s just through pure inspiration. The music is fundamental. It’s such a beautiful window of emotional release for people. I contacted Michel. We’ve known each other for a while. I kind of went very humbly to Michel and said, I’ve got this crazy idea of these mixes. Not a playlist but a mix which is a real art form, which could be a release for people to reference and listen to during these times when we all feel really anxious, going through all these weird things. It’s kind of started through that. Right, Michel?
MICHEL GAUBERT — Yes. That’s where it started from. I’ve known Simon for a while through fashion. We’ve been friends through JW Anderson and on Blue Monday he called me and asked me what I thought of it. For sure. Personally, I like to share what I do most of the time. When it’s for shows and stuff like that, people listen to it. But if I can help people with what I do, it’s always the best thing. So, I just said, yes! Let’s do it. And also, mental health is a very complicated topic. Mental health has always been complicated. A lot of people don’t talk about it and they keep it to themselves. I mean that happened to me a long time ago. Like other people, I’m not going to go deeply into it, but it happened to me a couple times in my life. Things were very difficult. And you need other people. Isolation is not the best thing. That’s the way I see it. So that was the reason for my participation.
SIMON WHITEHOUSE — I think the sensitivity around it is really important for EBIT. There will be different projects for EBIT in terms of different disciplines of art or photography and poetry and sculpture. I feel it’s a really profound way of having empathy and openness around the subject without being too explicit if that makes sense. And through doing that it actually breeds a certain solidarity around it and a certain empathy around it. And the Blue Monday aspect which came very about serendipitously because I was connected with John Digweed who is very close to that era of the 80s when it was the Hacienda and the Renaissance and all of those things. And on the horizon was this Blue Monday thing. Blue Monday is the third Monday of January, which is supposedly the scientifically most depressing day. So, I had this idea: Maybe it’s beautiful to do something on that day? And it’s a profound way of not talking explicitly about depression, but using it in a very optimistic way. Creating a beautiful mix which takes your mind on a journey. I challenge anyone to listen to it and not smile! And not release.
ASHLEY SIMPSON — For me, it really resonated on a lot of levels. I mean music probably saved my life. In this time, it really fits, people need it. And also within aesthetic communities –that’s how we form community, through that expression of identity and pushing small ideas around. I’d love to hear a little bit about the process: How the mix was developed, what specific tracks really brought this dynamic feeling, and maybe a little bit about the production and what you guys played back and forth as you discussed imagery and worked with M/M Paris.
MICHEL GAUBERT — Listen, my job is music. My work is music. So, I listen to music all the time. I do music for a lot of events, whether they’re shows or statics or stores or exhibitions, any kind of thing. So, I thought I was going to do maybe a kind of greatest hits. All the things I liked in the past couple years that I’ve worked with and I thought were very uplifting. So, I started from this. As a person, I have a lot of different tastes in music. I’m not just one type of music or anything in general anyway. I wanted to include a bit of different things. House. R&B. Disco. Electronic. Ambient. Classical. All of this I wanted to include. And the first track, ‘It’s Alright’ by the Pet Shop Boys, I chose that one because it’s very personal to me. I was in New York in 2001 when the Towers fell down and when I came back to Paris, I had to work with someone on Pet Shop Boys and I listened to that track and I was on my headphones and the words just resonated with me and I started crying, then I played it like 25 times in a row after that. Like okay, it’s going to be alright. You know? I also liked the fact that I didn’t put the original one by Sterling Void. I think it’s good it was the Pet Shop Boys. At the time, they’re very famous, very renown, and they brought something by the Chicago underground culture into the main pop level. So, they made something underground even bigger than it already was. It was that power, that status, whatever you want to say, to pass the message along. I don’t know if Sterling Void by himself would have been such a big hit. I mean he would have been an underground hit. But I like the fact that Pet Shop Boys made it like a big thing. So, it’s a culture of crossover which is something I like very much. I like when worlds get together and for me, everything is a big melting pot.
ASHLEY SIMPSON — That’s how you learn things and challenge and get the good ideas maybe.
MICHEL GAUBERT — Yeah, exactly. The world of music—all music is a crossover. Like the New Order “Blue Monday” song for example, is like a crossover of many things. They were Joy Division before and soon they become this dance sensation, bringing their—I wouldn’t say gothic, but their dark side to something that was more like a disco beat. And it’s similar to Dead or Alive but I don’t like the Dead or Alive thing. It’s too flamboyant and try hard for me. “Blue Monday” works because they really felt it. It’s one of the most perfect tracks ever. I was working in a record store when it first came out and we were playing it all the time. We sold like, I don’t know, a thousand copies of it. People were just going crazy for it. In those days in France, we had less radios than we do now. There was no MTV. So, people were coming to record stores to listen to the good stuff. Everyone was reacting to that. Coming from any kind of background. So that was a cool song to pick up from.
SIMON WHITEHOUSE — I remember, I was a teenager. Like your story Michel of being in the store, so many people have nostalgic memories or reflections of “Blue Monday” by New Order. People became obsessed with it at the time when it came out. I remember being in my bedroom. I was a young teenager or something. I was obsessed with it to the point where I painted all of my room blue, I changed the curtains, I got each of my parents to change my wardrobe. Everything was blue. Six months. Everything was blue. I don’t know if that was the start of my OCD or coming aware of it.
MICHEL GAUBERT — Oh, there were these blue flowers this weekend, I forgot to… [laughing] I totally forgot to send you.
SIMON WHITEHOUSE — Don’t be crazy. For the virtual reality when we spoke with Mumi and Tim, I wasn’t aware of how profound the Reference Festival was and how visionary it was. This only happened two or three weeks ago.
ASHLEY SIMPSON — That’s cool though. I like this spontaneity and still being able to create things without months and months [of planning and engineering] ….
SIMON WHITEHOUSE — And it’s really from the heart. For me, the heart and soul of EBIT is when I was personally in that time as a teenager because quite honestly that’s the last time I really felt mentally well because it was two, three years before my brother had a mental breakdown. And I suffered as a sibling through that. Not directly but indirectly, and then I lived with depression for 15 years after my dad passed away. So, my nostalgia and happiness of listening to music through these moments of being a teenager was one of the biggest inspirations and the soul of bringing EBIT to life. And it just feels like the world needs a progression and acceleration of the understanding and empathy around mental health because still in many circles and many countries and things, it’s still a very taboo and stigmatized subject. Through art and in very emotionally- inspiring ways that will not show explicit, its more optimistic, it could be a really beautiful way to provoke that dialogue.
ASHLEY SIMPSON — For me it just made me feel really good. I was dancing in my room which I haven’t done in a very long time. I would love to hear a little bit about what else you have planned for EBIT.
MICHEL GAUBERT — The next one is February, right?
SIMON WHITEHOUSE — Yeah, we were thinking towards the end of February, something like that. We’ve done an off-line project with Glen Luchford. Part of EBIT is also challenging the algorithm and coming off the algorithm. Which again is a very explicit reference to the days of Factory where people came away from the algorithm of regular society. It was post-punk. Everybody just came together in harmony. All racism stopped and all violence stopped. It just feels very now and tomorrow. So, we’ll do more offline things. Which might not necessarily come so much to life on Instagram.
ASHLEY SIMPSON — Anything else that you want to say about this project?
SIMON WHITEHOUSE — The aspect of the feeling is super important. There is no economic incentive. It all came through feeling and it should always be about feeling. For me, I grew up in Manchester and very close to Manchester and Factory Records, the way that those guys provoked culture through the artistic expression and the feeling, I think it’s a really beautiful reference and inspiration for how we could affect this dialogue for mental health now. It’s very different but actually the freedom of expression and the energy about it was actually very, very similar. Certain points of experience in the fashion industry—there’s not many things where freedom of expression is still existing.
MICHEL GAUBERT — [Where we are in the pandemic today] A lot of people think it’s going to be like before in six months. And I don’t think so at all. There are going to be a lot of people needing help. Right now, I think we are in the easy period. We are home. It’s kind of like being in a cocoon in a way. But when the world reopens and a lot of people need to go back to their lives, they won’t be able to because they won’t have a job anymore, and that’s when you’re going to find out it’s really a mess. People are going to be on the streets. What are you going to do with that?
ASHLEY SIMPSON — We just have to push forward.
MICHEL GAUBERT — Exactly, that’s why music is important. It’s like an emotional support. And I think music for me, in the time I’ve been alive, I think ’79-’84 was the most interesting musically. It doesn’t mean I don’t like music from after but that’s when all the world got together. When Reggae got into punk and then punk got into disco. German Kraftwerk was sampled by Arika Bambaataa so Kraftwerk went to Harlem. Hip-hop. All that kind of things. I would like this to come back. For the whole world. Culture. Getting together. Doing something. That’s what we need basically. And even a lot of people were more outspoken in a way. You know when people like Boy George, whoever it was, he did what he wanted. No one was questioning if he was transgender, queer or whatever. He was Boy George! And Marilyn was Marilyn. And that’s the way it is. And that’s the way it should be now. It’s become more complicated.
SIMON WHITEHOUSE — We should just be free!
MICHEL GAUBERT — Exactly. I was lucky, I never had to come out with my parents. I always did what I wanted to do. And like fuck it. If you don’t like me, I don’t care. I like myself. In a way. I’m going to make my life the way I want it.
SIMON WHITEHOUSE — It should always be like that. I think also the mixes are a beautiful resource for people. We are isolated and a bit trapped and the moment of release for people—it’s a really beautiful journey to go on for an hour or so.
Interview by Ashley Simpson
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